The Florida softshell turtle is the largest species of softshell turtle found in all of North America. It has a flattened, pancake-like body, a long neck, and an elongated head with a long snorkel-like nose. It has large webbed feet, each with three claws. While most turtles have hard shells composed of scutes, Florida softshells have cartilaginous carapaces covered in leathery skin. Their color usually ranges from olive green to dark brown and the underside is white or cream-colored. This color pattern is a form of camouflage to conceal turtles from potential predators. Hatchlings have a lighter carapace with yellow and orange markings and a carapacial rim. Stripes in the same color are also found on the face and neck. Their plastron is generally dark in color. As the turtle ages, these colors fade and are lost, resulting in the dark-brown coloration characteristic of adults.
Florida softshell turtles are native to the Southeastern United States. They are found primarily in the state of Florida, but they also range to southern sections of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas. It is the only species of a softshell turtle whose range spans the entire Florida peninsula. These turtles occupy almost every freshwater habitat, even tolerating some brackish environments; however, they are not often found in water with strong currents, preferring habitats with slow-moving or still water. These different habitats include swamps, lakes, marshes, wet prairies, small rivers, creeks, and even ponds formed in man-made ditches or sinkholes.
Florida softshell turtles are almost entirely aquatic, only emerging from the water to bask or to lay eggs. In the water, they prefer to bury themselves in the sandy/muddy substrate. Like all softshells, they are very fast-moving in water and on land. In warm areas of their range, these turtles can remain active all year-round but become inactive during cold days. In the northern regions, they hibernate during the winter months. Florida softshells are solitary and diurnal creatures. They can be very aggressive and may grasp or scratch with their sharp jaws and claws if they are handled or feel any danger. They may also produce a musk to warn away predators.
Florida softshell turtles are polygynandrous (promiscuous) meaning that both males and females have multiple mates. Most breeding occurs from April to early Augst and females can lay up to 4-5 clutches per year. Eggs are laid near water in alligator nests or in a hole burrowed by a female in a soft, sandy area. Each clutch contains around 10-38 eggs which are usually incubated 60-90 days. To make their way out hatchlings crack egg-shells using their claws and egg tooth. They are fully developed at birth and are able to fend on their own. Females become reproductively mature anywhere from 5-8 years of age, while males are ready to mate when they are 2 years old.
Florida softshell turtles are common throughout their range, however, wild populations are subject to various threats at the hands of humans. Some of these threats include commercial harvesting for meat, harvesting for the pet trade, and roadway mortalities.
According to IUCN, the Florida softshell turtle is locally common and widespread throughout its range but no overall population estimate is available. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.
Florida softshells are important predators and scavengers in their aquatic ecosystems. Due to feeding upon various amphibians, insects, fish, and reptiles, they control the numbers of these species’ populations throughout their range. These turtles are also prey species for many local predators such as Fish crow, foxes, raccoons, skunks, river otters, alligators, and raptors.