When I think of turtles, a very familiar image comes to mind: a hard, armour-like shell, four little limbs sticking out of it, and a cute little head at the front. But not all turtles are built equally. Some are not so cute, some have long legs, and some even have soft shells. This is what really throws me off — what’s the point of having a shell if it’s soft? Well a number of turtles have decided to go this route, and I’ll be talking about one of them: The spiny softshell turtle.

Spiny soft-shell turtles live in North America, and are generally found in the central and eastern parts of the continent, from northern Mexico to Ontario and Quebec. They are a freshwater species, living in bays, rivers, lakes, and ponds. The preferred habitat of spiny soft-shell turtles are open areas with some vegetation, sandy or muddy bottoms, and sandy shores for nesting.

Don’t you think these guys look silly? I think they look silly.
Image by Kim Pardi from Carbondale, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Spiny softshell turtles are some of the biggest freshwater turtles in North America, reaching 48 cm in length. Males are smaller than females, only attaining lengths of 24 cm. The spiny part of the softshell’s name comes from spines at the front of their shell. Soft-shell turtles have long, pointy noses that make them look super weird. They are dark coloured, with two yellow stripes bordering the edges of their shells.

Courtship in softshell turtles is pretty simple: males just nudge females’ heads in the water, and if he does it right they mate right then and there in the water. The females then lay their eggs on sandy banks near the water, in shallow holes. The eggs hatch in the early fall, though sometimes eggs incubate over winter and hatch in spring.

Softshell turtles are pretty good hiders, as you might imagine from a turtle that is basically the same colour as a muddy pond bottom. Often caught basking in the sun during the day, soft-shell turtles quickly dive beneath the water and bury themselves in the sand, hiding themselves extraordinarily well. The only thing you’ll see of a hiding spiny softshell turtle is its head. And if you wait for the turtle to come back up, you may be waiting for a long time — softshell turtles can breathe underwater through their skin.

There’s just something about their pancake-like shell and silly nose that makes me chuckle.
Image by Annika Lindqvist, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The soft shell in these turtles in not unique to this species: there is an entire family of softshell turtles, whose leathery, pliable shells have earned them the title. The shell is softest at the sides, and bones beneath the centre of the shell still provide protection for the turtle. The softness of the shell, on the other hand, gives turtles greater mobility in the water and on land.

So while having a soft shell may seem counter-intuitive for a turtle, there is actually a reason for it. Especially if you can just hide from predators at the bottom of lakes. Still, I don’t think I’d want that nose, no matter what type of shell I had.

Cover image by Peter Paplanus from St. Louis, Missouri, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons