The musk turtle is not a particularly appealing creature, especially when you consider that it is also known as a “stinkpot.” These turtles give off a very strong musk smell to warn off prey and it is quite prominent should you try to capture one or hold one. The smell comes from glands under the shell. A musk turtle will also bite but you can usually avoid harm by holding it in the right position.
A musk turtle is quite small at four and a half inches long. Their coloring can be black or an olive green. Skin can be seen between the seams on the plastron (shell) of the turtle, and the musk turtle has two yellowish stripes on each side of the head. The musk turtle is not often seen as it is known to rarely bask, and is nocturnal. It lives in marshes, ditches, ponds and backwaters, preferring to be around slow-moving water and soft, muddy soil.
It takes four to seven years for a male musk turtle to mature and the female can take even longer, from nine to eleven months. They mate in the spring and females nest in June or July. It is thought that sometimes a musk turtle might mate in the fall and store the male’s sperm until spring. The places where females make the nest are variable--it might be sunny or shady, in a warm or a colder spot. Scientists believe that the temperature where the eggs hatch has to do with the musk turtle’s sex. More male turtles are produced when the temperature is low and more females when the temperature is warm.
A baby musk turtle eats mostly meat but as it grows older it becomes omnivorous, eating both plants and animals. Babies like fish, insects, tadpoles, crayfish and any other small creature it feels capable of overtaking. The musk turtle is also thought to be a scavenger, eating anything dead it can find. Many times, a musk turtle will be caught by someone fishing. If this should happen to you, be careful and try not to injure the small turtle before releasing it back into the water.
There are several types of musk turtles in addition to the Common Musk Turtle. For instance, the Razor-Backed Musk Turtle has a very sloping back with what looks like a sharp edge. There is also a Flattened Musk Turtle which, as the name also indicates, looks to have a very flat back. The Loggerhead Musk Turtle is known to climb into trees above the water and plop back into the water if it senses a threat nearby.
Mud turtles are very similar in the musk turtle, both in terms of size, environment, diet and mating habits. It is sometimes difficult to recognize one from another. Both types of turtles are often kept as pets. If possible, always buy a mud or musk turtle from a breeder (they do exist). Do not acquire one from the wild. Most can live quite comfortably in large aquariums with separated sections for land and water. Musk turtles in captivity will eventually stop giving off the musk odor, but you will still have to be careful about getting bitten by the more aggressive ones.