By Ali Holton
Widespread across the state and occupying most freshwater and brackish habitats, the Florida softshell turtle can be a regularly observed aquatic critter. The Florida softshell is one of four softshell turtle species that can be found in or around the state. Others include the aquatic smooth softshell and the spiny softshell; both found in the Panhandle, as well as the marine leatherback sea turtle, who can be found nesting on our East Coast during select months in Spring.
The Florida softshell is unique because it is the only one of these that can be found spread throughout the entire state with frequency. Easily identified by their brown to olive green, leathery shell, these turtles are commonly mistaken as a snapping turtle. The Florida softshell can range in size, averaging 6-14 inches long, with females being larger than the males. Adult females will also have a shorter tail when compared to those of males.
Florida softshells have long necks, reminiscent of snapping turtles, which they can maneuver and extend impressively far towards the back of their shell. This is likely what leads to the misidentification. It is common for good Samaritans helping a softshell safely cross a roadway or out of danger to fall victim to one of their powerful ‘bites’; however, they are a generally docile creature that mean us no harm and want nothing to do with human interaction.
These turtles can be found in almost any pond, marsh or stream and prefer a habitat with a sandy or muddy substrate in which they can submerge themselves into. This also acts as a good way to conceal themselves from predation. Softshell turtles are often preyed upon by alligators, and many hatchlings are a favorite snack to fish, raccoons and wading birds.
Their carnivorous diet consists mainly of snails, fish, small insects, crustaceans and aquatic invertebrates. Florida softshells also have characteristic, tubular nostrils that can usually be seen just below or peeking above the flat surface of most ponds and lakes in which they inhabit.
Like so many other animals in Florida, softshells face threats from pollution, habitat loss and habitat degradation. Much of their historic nesting grounds have been depleted and continue to disappear due to development and agriculture. Urban runoff and the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides negatively impact many waterways in which they reside.
We can help the Florida softshell, other species and our environment by committing to a greener lifestyle, reduced use of fertilizer and keeping Florida clean and wild for generations to protect and enjoy.