Common Musk Turtle

Common Musk Turtle (Scientific name: Sternotherus odoratus)

Sternotherus odoratus-0412b-DONE

This “Meet Your Neighbours” photograph of the Common Musk Turtle was taken by Twan Leenders

The Common Musk Turtle is also commonly referred to as the “stinkpot”, because it can produce a fluid in the glands beneath the top of its shell that gives off a pungent musky odor. When a musk turtle is captured or disturbed the turtle releases the musk odor to deter would-be predators and occasionally kids who want to keep this adorable turtle as a pet.

Common musk turtles are small turtles, usually 5-12 cm in length, with dark brown or black shells that may be streaked or mottled, with light spots along the edges of the shell. The head of the common musk turtle typically has two distinct parallel yellow stripes that extend from the nose to the neck. This species can be differentiated from the similar mud turtles by their relatively small plastron (bottom of shell), which has one weak hinge and exposed areas of skin. Musk turtle can also blend well into their surroundings by allowing green algae to accumulate on their shell.

Common Musk Turtle we caught in one of our hoop traps.

The common musk turtles can be found throughout the eastern U.S. in a variety of aquatic habitats. They are most common in shallow water-bodies with low currents, abundant aquatic vegetation, and soft organic bottoms. Although Musk Turtles are primarily nocturnal and they are often seen foraging in shallow water in the evening, they can sometimes be spotted during the day. They are omnivorous (e.g., seeds, insects, snails, tadpoles, algae) and will occasionally scavenge on fish carrion.

Surprisingly, common musk turtles have been seen climbing trees. The common musk turtle has been known to climb trees overhanging waterways and slanting boles as high as 6 or more feet above the surface of the water. If a turtle ever falls on your head or drops into your watercraft while you are out kayaking or canoeing, it probably will be this or one of the other musk turtles.

Turtle Trapping and Field Trips

It was a foggy morning, and we were going to start our first day of trapping. We prepared our venture by prepping the traps with disinfectant . Having  set the traps, we lie in wait in hopes of catching the elusive, spiny soft-shelled turtle. However, we were only able to nab six painted turtles and two cantankerous snapping turtles. Before we were able to log the discovery, time had to pass to allow the snapping turtles to get all their anger out. They sat there clamping down on one another for a few minutes, damaging the other’s shell. Luckily, Twan, the director of the institute, was there and could show us the proper method for handling these primal creatures. Carefully grabbing the turtle by the back of the shell, we were able to tentatively get a measurement without injury to ourselves. Moving on to the painted turtles, we practiced gathering information on turtles by measuring weight, the length of the carapace and plastron, and counting age using the scutes on the top of the shell. This is the same information that will be recorded when it comes to our focus species.

Hailey holding a snapper

Handling a snapper

For our first field trip, we traveled to Harris Hill State forest with forester, Jeff Brockelbank. He shared with us an in-depth look at an ecosystem. There are a multitude of each part of the system, be it trees, insects, animals, or anything else. Perhaps the most interesting aspect was that logging is as much of a necessary part of a healthy forest as growth. For younger, more preferable trees to grow, it is necessary to chop down the already grown trees that take up all of the sun, nutrients, and water.

Harris Hill with Jeff B

Our second field trip was spent in the fish hatchery and Chautauqua Gorge. At the hatchery, we viewed the many types of fish in Chautauqua lake that some of us did not even know existed. Perhaps the most interesting of these species was the spotted gar, which is a large, armored fish that looks like some kind of prehistoric animal. Also, we learned about the efforts to preserve paddlefish in the Allegheny River and in Chautauqua Lake. These are other really cool animal, which are easily identified by their huge, paddle-like snout. Paddlefish can reach six-foot long when they are fully grown, which is why the largest fish ever caught in Chautauqua Lake was a paddlefish. Getting to see all of the work that the DEC did to support fishing in the state was neat, and all of the different species that can be found in WNY.

Fish Hatchery

Fish Hatchery (1)

Although many of the youth ambassadors have lived in WNY their whole lives, many of us have never been to Chautauqua Gorge. This made it especially interesting to get to see such a beautiful place right here in Chautauqua County. When we first got there, we had to go down a steep, but very scenic path down to the gorge itself. Down in the gorge, we got to experience one of the headwaters of the Allegheny, a stream flowing with cool, clean, water. Besides seeing some really neat waterfalls and rock formations, we were able to find a number of uncommon examples of wildlife. Some of these included a Northern Water Snake, and a Ring-Necked Snake. Overall, the trip to Chautauqua Gorge is a must-see to anyone in the area who enjoys wildlife and the outdoors.

Erros-Ring neck snake

Chautauqua Gorge

The research has begun and our excitement has skyrocketed. Hopefully soon we can catch our focus species and begin banding to gather the information we need. We also look forward to other unique field trips where we can learn about the surrounding area and each part of the ecosystem.