Eastern Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)

Eastern Musk Turtle underwater, Shenandoah, North Fork

Photographed on the Shenandoah, North Fork in Cootes Store, Virginia (click on image to see map)

Photograph © Steven David Johnson (All Rights Reserved)
Contact Steven David Johnson for image licensing

Common Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)

Common Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)

Text from Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

stinkpot (Sternotherus odoratus)


This species is a small, freshwater aquatic turtle with an oval, high-domed carapace and a large head that usually has two yellowish stripes on each side. The plastron (lower shell) is relatively small and has a single inconspicuous and poorly-developed hinge situated between the second and third pairs of scutes (scales). There are barbels on both the chin and throat and the carapace (upper shell) length is 3-5.5 inches. The carapace is smooth, varying in color from olive-brown to almost black, and is sometimes streaked or spotted with dark markings. Old individuals have head stripes that are less apparent and a carapace that is more elongate. The young are black with light markings on the marginal scutes, and a plastron marbled with black and gray or cream. The eggs are white, elliptical, and vary in size and shape, averaging 3/4 inch by 1 inch, with a thick, brittle shell resistant to desiccation. The breeding season occurs in late May. This species is a weak swimmer that is often seen crawling on mud in quiet water. It seldom leaves the water except to lay eggs. It will hiss, open the mouth threateningly, and often bite when captured.


This turtle is believed to occur statewide, with the exception of the Eastern Shore below the upper third of Accomack County. This species is rarely found far from water. It inhabits ponds, lakes, swamps, ditches, streams, and rivers. It is not found in brackish water because it cannot tolerate salt water. This species also prefers waterbodies that have organic substrates and vegetation.


The stinkpot is omnivorous. It probes the bottom of a stream or pond for food. Food items found in collected specimens include: seed pods, seeds, beetles, moths, dragonflies, crayfish, and freshwater snails and mollusks. It also eats algae, leeches, tadpoles, and fish.

More Information

For more information, please visit the Virginia Fish & Wildlife Information Service (direct link to species booklet).


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