How to Identify Oklahoma Water Turtles

By John Lindell; Updated April 25, 2017
Oklahoma's waterways support 15 different types of water turtles.

Oklahoma is the home of 15 different types of aquatic turtle species, notes the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. These turtles belong to a variety of families and spend all, most or part of the time in the water. To identify Oklahoma’s water turtles, you must factor in such facets of the reptiles as their size, coloring, habitat and habits.

Estimate or measure the size of the water turtles you encounter. The largest in Oklahoma are the alligator snapping turtle, which can be as long as 25 inches and weigh in the 100 lb. range. Other big turtles include the common snapping turtle, spiny softshell turtle, smooth softshell turtle and eastern river cooter, which may all exceed 13 inches long. Medium sized turtles in the 5 to 10 inch range include the painted turtle, map turtles and western chicken turtle. Smaller Oklahoma species less than 5 inches long are types such as the razor-backed musk turtle and the stinkpot.

Examine the upper shell of the turtle. The carapace will differ on each species, if only slightly. Snapping turtles have a shell featuring ridges, while those of the yellow mud turtle and Mississippi mud turtle are quite smooth. Map turtles possess a distinct ridge down the middle of the shell and lines that look like roads drawn on a map. The shells of the softshell types have a leathery look and are flat.

Inspect the colors of the water turtles of Oklahoma. Painted turtles took their names for the red, orange and yellow stripes that occur on places like the legs, tail and neck. The softshell turtles have an olive-brown skin and a yellow stripe running through each eye. The red-eared slider’s bright red area of skin behind both eyes gives it away. The common map turtle has green skin accentuated by yellowish lines on its exposed parts such as the legs and head.

Identify the water turtles you find by where you find them. The habitat in which these reptiles live offers excellent clues to what type they are. For example, the river cooter requires rivers, reservoirs or streams that offer plenty of aquatic weeds for cover, food, and shallow areas in which to live, so it avoids ponds and lakes. The alligator snapping turtles prefer deep streams and rivers where trees overhang the banks. In Oklahoma, the stinkpot turtle will live where the bottom is muddy in small ponds, swamps and other wetlands in the eastern sections of the state.

Observe the behavior and habits of any water turtles you can find. This can often help you focus in on identification. Map turtles enjoy basking in the sunshine on the logs and rocks in their aquatic habitat. The “National Audubon Society Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians” states that the yellow mud turtle will venture onto land in search of worms at dawn and dusk. The softshell turtles can swim with unexpected speed to escape a threat, while the snapping turtles will bite to defend themselves when caught out on land, but they will swim away harmlessly when discovered in the water.

About the Author

John Lindell has written articles for "The Greyhound Review" and various other online publications. A Connecticut native, his work specializes in sports, fishing and nature. Lindell worked in greyhound racing for 25 years.