Unless otherwise noted, information contained in each edition of the Kansas School Naturalist reflects the knowledge of the subject as of the original date of publication.

Volume 2, Number 4 - April 1956

Turtles in Kansas

by Robert F. Clarke

 Front cover: Spring Wildflowers
 THE COVER PICTURE, of an elegant slider, was taken near Neodesha by Stoughton Richmond
while he was a student enrolled in a project in biology.

PDF of Issue


Published by
The Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia

John E. King, President

Prepared and Issued by
The Department of Biology, with the cooperation of the Divisions of Education and Social Science

Editor: John Breukelman, Head, Department of Biology
Editorial Committee: Ina M. Borman, Helen M. Douglass, Dixon Smith

The Kansas School Naturalist is sent upon request, free of charge, to any citizen of Kansas.

The Kansas School Naturalist is published in October, December, February and April of each year by The Kansas State Teachers College, Emporia, Kansas. Second-class mail privileges authorized at Emporia, Kansas.


ROBERT F. CLARKE, who wrote the text and drew the pictures for Turtles in Kansas, is a graduate student in biology, attending the Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia on a fellowship granted by the National Science Foundation. His thesis for the degree Master of Science is an ecological study of the reptiles and amphibians of Osage County and vicinity. Mr. Clarke's serious interest in these animals goes back to boyhood days, and he has published several papers in journals dealing with reptiles and amphibians.


by Robert F. Clarke

Turtles are reptiles - a group of animals that includes snakes, lizards, crocodiles, and alligators - which have remained virtually unchanged for millions of years. The turtle has witnessed the passing parade of life; the rise and extinction of great groups of fearsome animals - the dinosaurs, the mastodon, the saber-toothed tiger - and today, as in the past, he still plods or swims along, carrying his house upon his back.

This house of tough bone and shell is important to the turtle, for it protects him from many enemies that would otherwise find him a tasty mouthful. Some turtles can withdraw completely into their shells, closing the lower shell against the upper and thus forming a protective "box." We are familiar with a turtle of this type in Kansas, which is usually called the "box turtle" or "dry land turtle." Some turtles, though, have a smaller shell into which they cannot withdraw. This handicap is often offset by the possession of fierce jaws and a mean disposition.

Where do turtles live? Some, like the box turtle that we just mentioned, spend their entire lives on land, only seldom entering the water; some spend their entire lives in the water. Names have been given to the various turtles depending on the amount of time spent in the water. Those that almost never go into the water are called "tortoises"; those that are always in the water, "turtles"; and those that spend most of the time in the water but are commonly found basking are called "terrapins." The terrapins are the kind that are usually seen in and about creeks, rivers, lakes, and ponds. Since these names often lead to confusion, we shall call all of them "turtles."

Each kind of turtle has its own preference of a habitat. A habitat is the special type of place in which a certain animal is found. The habitat for each species of Kansas turtle will be found listed in the description of the various turtles.

How long do turtles live? The answer to this question is not easy to give, for turtles live a long time if they do not meet with an accident and are allowed to die of old age. It is thought at present that some turtles may live to be over a hundred years old. Turtles, generally box turtles, have been found with initials and dates carved into their shells. Sometimes these dates indicate that the turtle is several hundred years old. It should be remembered, however, that anyone can carve any initials or dates that please him, and that after a few years the carving will look very old. Therefore, any turtle whose carved date indicates that it is several centuries old is usually regarded as a hoax or prank.

Of what value are turtles? Each animal or plant has a certain amount of value in its relationship to the other animals and plants with which it lives that cannot be calculated. Too often, we humans tend to regard a creature as beneficial or destructive on the basis of how it seems to directly affect us, without knowing what part it plays in the general welfare of the community in which it lives. From the human standpoint, most turtles are either beneficial or indifferent; few are considered harmful.

There are a number of ways in which turtles are of value to us, both economically and recreationally. Before plastics became popular, there was a thriving business in "tortoise-shell." This substance was used for making eye-glass frames and was taken from the shell plates of large sea turtles. These sea turtles were captured when they came onto island beaches to lay their eggs.

Many kinds of turtles are used for food. Not only does the flesh make a tasty soup or stew, but also the eggs make delicious omelets.

The sale of baby turtles is big business in some Southern localities, where the babies are sold in large numbers to dealers who resell them for pets. These babies are generally hatched from eggs in incubators.

Turtle races can be held by marking off a large circle on the ground several feet in diameter. The turtles are then placed in the center of the circle and held there by hand or under an object, such as a box or bushel basket, until a signal is given to start. The turtles are released and the first to cross the line is the winner. Box turtles are usually used in these races.

All turtles lay eggs. These eggs must be laid on land and in a suitable spot so that they will hatch. Sometimes a lengthy search by the female is necessary before a suitable spot is found. She then digs out a hole using only her rear feet, lays her eggs, and covers up the nest. The nest is hidden by the female scratching sticks and grass over it. Then she turns her back on the nest and waddles away, her part of the job done.

Most turtles like to lie in the warm sun. This is called "basking." Too much sun will kill a turtle, however, and a captive turtle should he given a shady spot into which it can crawl when it wishes.

Turtles are "cold-blooded." That is, their body temperature goes up or down as the air temperature changes. As the air temperature lowers, the turtle's movements become slower until, at a temperature a little above freezing, the turtle can no longer move. So, in the autumn, the turtles go into a resting period, called hibernation, beneath the ground or into the mud at the bottom of a body of water. This hibernation lasts all winter until the freezing temperatures have gone.


Turtles make interesting pets. Some are much more easily kept than others. Box turtles are commonly kept as adults. They may be kept in any sort of box or wire cage and can be fed table scraps. They should be provided with plenty of water to drink and a spot with both sun and shade. The baby turtles bought at dime stores are of the aquatic type and must be kept in an aquarium. They should be provided with some means of getting out of the water when they wish, for some of the aquatic turtles will die if they cannot get out of the water. A cork float makes a nice platform to climb on. Even better is an aquarium large enough so that a pan of water can be placed in one half and the rest filled with gravel or sand. A rock should be placed in a corner of the pan to aid the turtle in crawling from the water. These aquatic turtles feed on hamburger and insects. Do not place the aquarium in direct sunlight, nor let it get too hot or too cold. A list of cheap booklets on the care of captive turtles is given below. It is suggested that anyone keeping a captive turtle should purchase one of these.

Baby turtles are often offered for sale with their shell painted with a decorative design. It has been found that in some cases this paint has prevented the growth of the turtle. If such a turtle is bought, the paint should be scraped off before several weeks have passed. The design of the shell of an unpainted turtle is usually prettier than the paint job, anyhow - so why not get one unpainted?


1. The Terrarium by Burgess Barnett. Poultry Worlds, Ltd., Dorset House, Stamford St., London, S.E. 1. 57 pages.

2. Reptiles in the Home Zoo by Iasabel Hoopes, New England Museum of Natural History, Boston, Mass. 64 pages.

3. Keep Them Alive by E. Ross Allen and Wilfred T. Neill. The Reptile Institute, Silver Springs, Florida. 24 pages.

4. Pet Turtles by Julien L. Bronson. All-Pets Magazine, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. 16 pages.

5. My Baby Turtle by Charles E. Burt and Walter D. Landry. Quivira Specialties Co., Topeka, Kansas. 8 pages.


In Kansas, there are known to be at the present time thirteen species, or different kinds, of turtles. Some of these are common and are often seen, whereas others are relatively rare or shy and are seldom seen. The thirteen species in Kansas may be placed in seven groups on the basis of their appearance. That is, if we place those turtles together which look alike, we form six pairs, with one kind left alone. This method has been adopted on the following pages in order to compare the differences in those turtles which cannot be told apart readily.

In order to describe or to understand description properly, it is necessary to know the names of the important parts. The shell of a turtle is made up of an upper shell, the carapace, and a lower shell, the plastron, connected by a narrow bridge on each side. The carapace is covered by a group of horny plates, those around the edge being called marginals, the center rowan top from front to back called vertebrals, and the row on either side between the marginals and vertebrals are called costals. The single plate in the center front of the marginal row (above neck) is called the nuchal. The plastron is covered by pairs of plates, progressing from front to rear. They are in order: gulars, humerals, pectorals, femorals, and anals. These are shown on the accompanying diagram.

What to look for: For purposes of identification, there are certain characteristics which will separate each of the Kansas species from the others. Perhaps only one feature will have to be noted, such as the leathery shell of the soft-shells, or the long tail of the snappers, in order to identify the turtle as to one of the pairs on the following pages. However, it will be necessary to note more characteristics in order to separate one of a pair from the other. Read the description and comparison under each group and look for the differences in the illustrations.

The following are the characteristics to be noted:

1. Head markings - Look for number, shape, size, and color of any lines on head and neck.

2. Plastron and carapace markings - See if there are any markings at all; and color, shape, number, and size of these markings.

3. Shape of legs - Are the legs stumplike (box turtles)?, or are the hind feet large and paddle-like (aquatic turtles)?

4. Shape of carapace - Is the shell high or low? dome-shaped or flattened? round, oblong, or rectangular? Is the rear smooth or roughly notched? Are the plates smooth and flat? or do they project upward in points?

5. Where found - Was the turtle found on land, in a lake, river, farm pond, ditch, or muddy slough? In what section of the state was it found? (Remember that sometimes turtles are carried away from where they naturally occur and are either set free or escape.)


By using the following key, which compares major differences in the appearance of the Kansas turtles, the turtle may be placed in one of the pairs on the follOWing pages. To separate the turtle from the pair, turn to the page indicated and use the comparison of differences listed there.

1. Large head; small plastron; long tail with raised scales; mean disposition - snappers
2. Smooth, dark oval shell; small size; aquatic; 2 barbels on chin; 11 plates on plastron (a single gular) - musk and mud
3. On land; carapace high; legs stump-like; plastron can be closed against carapace - box
4. Aquatic; carapace low, with notched rear edge, may have red blob on each side of head behind eye, large rear feet, nuchal plate of carapace at least twice as long as broad - sliders
5. Aquatic; carapace may have raised paints on midline or smooth, with rear edge roughly notched; large rear feet; nuchal plate of carapace less than twice as long as broad - map
6. Aquatic, carapace low and smooth; red and black design on plastron and under edge of carapace - painted
7. Aquatic; large rear feet; carapace "pancake" shape and color, leathery in texture - not hard - soft-shells



  1. The three rows of prominent points on the upper shell remain so during the life of the turtle.
  2. Maximum size is much larger; the carapace about 24 inches and a weight of about 200 pounds.
  3. Hard plates on top of the head.
  4. An extra row of plates (supramarginals) between costals and marginals in center of each side of carapace.
  5. Numerous small scales on lower side of tail.


  1. Upper shell becomes rather smooth as the turtle becomes larger.
  2. Maximum size is smaller; the carapace about 15 inches. and weight of about 70 pounds.
  3. Soft skin on top of the head.
  4. The usual 3 rows of plates on carapace (vertebrals, costals, and marginals).
  5. Two rows of large plates on lower side of tail.

There are two species of snapping turtles in Kansas - the common snapper and the alligator snapper. As its name indicates, the common snapper is the type which is most often found; the alligator snapper is rather rare.

Appearance: These turtles are dark grey, sometimes appearing black. Quite often their backs are overgrown with algae, so that they look like rocks resting on the bottom of a pond. The large head, small plastron, and long tail with a row of upward projecting plates along its top side serve to distinguish snappers.

Habitat - The common snapper lives in almost any aquatic situation - ditches, creeks, rivers, ponds, and even small muddy pools where there is hardly enough water to cover it back -and may be found on land. It has been found in all parts of the state. The alligator snapper has been recorded only from the Arkansas and Neosho Rivers and their tributaries.

Food - The alligator snapper's food presumably consists of fish, which it lures into its widespread jaws by movements of its wormlike tongue. The common snapper has a varied diet, eating almost anything that comes its way. Its more important foods are probably those forms which are most easily acquired-fish, frogs, crayfish, and the like.



  1. Two pairs of whitish lines on the head. These lines begin close together on each side of the head at the nose and progress backward along the head and neck, one passing above the eye; the other below it.
  2. Shape of second pair of plates of plastron not triangular.


  1. No paired whitish lines on sides of head. Chin throat and neck yellowish.
  2. Shape of second pair of plates of plastron triangular.

Two small turtles, quite similar in appearance, are the musk turtle and the mud turtle. These secretive species are not often seen by the average person. Both possess an unpleasant scent, which makes them undesirable to handle. They are not good swimmers and spend most of their time crawling around on the bottom of their aquatic home. The musk turtle seldom basks in the sun, whereas the mud turtle frequently does so.

Appearance: Both species are olive-brown to brown in color; sometimes appearing black, particularly small individuals. The upper shells are oval-shaped when viewed from above and more dome-shaped from a side view, the center of the carapace being comparatively higher than in other aquatic turtles. There are two conspicuous barbels on the chin.

Habitat: Usually mud-bottomed quiet waters are inhabited by the musk and mud turtles. They may be found along river banks, in ponds, streams, lakes, marshes, or even ditches. The musk turtle occurs in the southeastern one-fourth of the state, as far north as Wyandotte County in the east and as far west as Pratt County. The mud turtle, found over the southwestern two-thirds of Kansas, has been recorded only once northeast of a line running from Phillips County to Cherokee County.

Food: Both musk and mud turtles live largely on insects, snails, clams, plants, and vegetable debris. Crayfish and carrion are also taken.


  1. Upper shell more rounded. or "dome-shaped."
  2. Plastron plain greenish-tan or yellowish.
  3. Usually 3 toes on each hind leg.


  1. Upper shell more flat on top.
  2. Plastron marked with yellow and brown streaks.
  3. Usually 4 toes on each hind leg.

The box turtles, commonly called "dry land" turtles, are probably the best known turtles of the state. Quite often, these turtles are kept as pets, for which they are admirably suited, being easy to care for and generally mild in disposition. There are two species of box turtles in Kansas - the ornate box turtle and the three-toed box turtle - which can easily be distinguished.

Appearance: The lower portion of the plastron is hinged, allowing it to be pulled against the upper shell and thus forming a protective "box." The upper shells are dome-shaped, brown, and with or without yellow markings. These markings are prominent in the ornate box turtle and less well-developed in the three-toed box turtle. The legs are stumpy; the hind leg has either three or four toes in both species. The head is blunt at the end and is marked with yellow, greenish-yellow, or orange dots, as are the legs.

Habitat: Box turtles are common throughout the state. The ornate box turtle has been found over the entire state; whereas the three-toed box turtle has been found only in the southeastern portion. Box turtles live most of their lives away from the aquatic situations which the other turtles seek. The three-toed box turtle lives in wooded areas, whereas the ornate box turtle is more often found in open, grassy places.

Food : Insects, such as beetles and grasshoppers, form the main part of their food, but box turtles also eat the tender portions of plants. They may be a nuisance in a vegetable garden, as they like tomatoes and especially cantaloupes.



  1. A large r ed spot on the head behind the eye. This spot is longer than it is wide.
  2. Ridge on the crushing surface of the upper jaw not toothlike.
  3. Pattern on carapace mostly straight vertical yellow lines.
  4. Plastron with dark mark on each plate or entirely dark.


  1. No red spots on the head. Yellow lines narrow on top of head and broader on underside.
  2. Ridge on the crushing surface of the upper jaw is tooth like.
  3. Pattern on carapace mostly made up of concentrically arranged yellow lines, the vertical the most distinct.
  4. Plastron creamy white and without dark marking or with seven dark markings only faintly showing.

There are two species of turtles in Kansas of the kind commonly called "sliders." Most baby turtles sold to the public are young sliders.

Appearance: These turtles are fairly large, 10 to 12 inches in shell length. The carapace has a dark ground color upon which are numerous yellow lines. These lines are mostly vertical on the costal plates, with each costal plate having one line that is much more prominent than the others. The lines tend to fade with age, but usually there is a trace left of the prominent line. The plastron is yellow, each plate having a large dark circular mark. Dark circular marks are also present across the sutures of the underside of the marginal plates. The plastron may be almost white in the saw-toothed sliders. The rear feet are large and the toes webbed for swimming. In the males, the toenails of the front feet grow unusually long.

Habitat: The sliders are thoroughly aquatic. Slow moving or still streams, rivers, or lakes are preferred, particularly those which have abundant vegetation. The saw-toothed slider is rather rare in Kansas, having been noted in only five counties in southeastern Kansas. The elegant slider is common in the southeastern half of the state.

Food: The food is mostly animal matter: worms, fish, crayfish, and dead animals. Some aquatic plants may also be eaten.

Of the four subspecies of aquatic turtles in the United States known as "painted" turtles, one occurs in Kansas. This is the western painted turtle. It may be the most abundant turtle in Kansas - at least it is the one usually seen swimming or basking in the sun on dead limbs or piles of drift. The turtle derives its name from the undersurface of both the carapace and plastron, which are gaudily marked with red and orange, as though a design were painted on.

Appearance: The smooth carapace is low and flat-appearing. It is dark colored with red and yellow marking on the marginal plates (these markings may either be dim or not evident). The head is dark with numerous yellow stripes, and the legs are also marked with yellow stripes. On the underside, the marginals have a design of red marking, and the plastron has an intricate design of red, orange, and red, as shown in the above illustration. The hind legs are enlarged for swimming; the claws of the forefeet are elongated in the adult males. The rear edge of the upper shell is smooth, not notched as in the sliders and map turtles. In size, the painted turtles are moderate, a large one having shell length of ten inches.

Habitat: This turtle has been found in all sections of Kansas, except the extreme southwest corner. It inhabits a variety of places - ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, roadside ditches, sloughs, and almost any other type of permanent water. Sometimes it is found wandering about on land, quite some distance from any water. It prefers quiet water where there is an abundance of vegetation.

Food: The painted turtle is apparently fond of both plant and animal food - the plant food being mostly algae and leaves, and the animal food primarily insects. Other food may be taken, such as mollusks and crayfish. These turtles are scavengers and will eat all sorts of dead material.



  1. In large adults, the keel on the carapace is much reduced.
  2. The yellow spot behind the eye small, rounded, and separated from the eye by a small vertical line or lines.

False Map

  1. In large adults, the keel on carapace prominent.
  2. The yellow-spot behind the eye long vertically, comma-shaped, and is not separated from the eye by a small vertical line or lines.

Two kinds of "map" turtles appear in Kansas - the map turtle and the false map turtle. These turtles are fairly large but they are not usually seen by those who are not looking for them. The young are often found among the baby turtles sold in stores.

Appearance: the map turtles have an enlarged keel along the center of the carapace. This keel almost disappears in adult map turtles, but it is prominent in false map turtles. The hind legs are enlarged and paddle-like for swimming. The carapace is dull olive with many narrow yellow lines, and the plastron is plain creamy-yellow. In both species the rear edge of the carapace is prominently notched. The head and legs are marked with yellow lines, the lines and markings on the head being the distinguishing feature between the two species of map turtles. In fact, there are thought to be two kinds of false map turtles in Kansas, based on the comparative size of the head and the head markings.

Habitat: Map turtles are entirely aquatic, most common in rivers and large bodies or water, especially where there is much vegetation. They are not found in ponds, and but rarely in swiftly flowing streams.

Food: Map turtles subsist almost entirely on snails and clams, with some crayfish and insects also in the diet. Adult false map turtles tend to be much more vegetarians than the map turtles, eating aquatic plants.



  1. No lateral projection on either side of the wall separating the nostrils. (see illustration above)
  2. No bumps or tubercles on the front edge of the carapace.
  3. Dark markings on carapace in the form of small scattered spots.
  4. Usually no dark line around carapace near the edge.


  1. A lateral projection on each side of the wall separating the nostrils. This may be seen by looking into the nostrils. (see illustration above)
  2. A group of bumps or tubercles on the front edge of the carapace.
  3. Dark markings on carapace in the form of small circles which form a pattern - larger in center of carapace and smaller toward the edges.
  4. Usually a dark line around carapace near the edge.

There are two species of "soft-shell" turtles in Kansas - the smooth soft-shell and the spiny soft-shell. These turtles are readily distinguished from all others in the state by the possession of a shell that is leathery; not hard. The long neck, sharp jaws, and vicious disposition make these turtles unpleasant to handle.

Appearance: The carapace is light to dark brown with dark spots or circles scattered upon it. It is nearly circular in shape and has the texture of leather. The plastron is soft, and white or cream colored. The hind feet are greatly enlarged and webbed for swimming. The neck is extremely long, and the head tapers to a long snout.

Habitat: The spiny soft-shell has been found over most of the state. This form is rather common. The smooth soft-shell is somewhat rare. It has been taken at several places on the Arkansas and Kaw rivers and their tributaries, most records being from the central part of the state. Both soft-shells are river or stream turtles, may be found in lakes. They lie covered in the soft mud or sand near shore, with neck stretching upward with the nostrils above water. These turtles are entirely aquatic and come on land only to lay their eggs. They often bask in the sun on logs or soft shores, but are extremely shy.

Food: The varied diet of the soft-shelled turtles consists of such diverse items as crayfish, worms, insects, tadpoles, fish, and vegetation.


Have you ever heard any turtle tales? There are many stories, most of them myths, concerning turtles. Here are a few:

Did you ever hear that when a turtle bites you it won't let go until it thunders? Well, this is not true, for a turtle that bites you is angry and not at all interested in weather conditions.

Does the fact that turtles are seen crossing roads away from rivers indicate that there will be a flood? So goes the story. Or does it only indicate that turtles are hunting for nesting sites? Turtles were noticed crossing the roads away from the rivers during the last four floodless years in as large numbers as in years of floods.

Ever hear that a turtle can be made to crawl out of its shell by applying hot water or by placing the turtle on a hot stove? This cruel trick has actually been tried! Of course a turtle cannot leave its shell, because the shell is to the turtle what our backbone and ribs are to us, and he can no sooner part with it than we can with our bones.

Turtle Books

There are a number of excellent books in which the interested person can gain a more complete knowledge of the turtles of Kansas than could be given in this booklet. Listed below are several that give most of the information that is known concerning the turtles that occur in the state, as well as the other forms that are present in the United States. If these books cannot be found in your local library, information as to price and availability may be had by writing the publisher.

1. Handbook of Amphibians and Reptiles of Kansas by Hobart M. Smith. University of Kansas Museum of Natural History, Lawrence. 336 pages.

2. Handbook of Turtles by Archie Carr. Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y. 542 pages.

3. Reptiles of North America by Raymond L. Ditmars.

4. Turtles of the United States and Canada by Clifford H. Pope. Alfred A. Knopp, Co., New York. 343 pages.

5. Reptiles and Amphibians (A Golden Nature Guide) by Herbert S. Zim and Hobart M. Smith. Simon and Schuster Co., New York. 157 pages. (This is an inexpensive and useable small book which has accurate information and very good color drawings.)


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