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Eastern Musk Turtles Are Small but Mighty

The eastern musk turtle, or common musk turtle, is one of the smallest turtles not only here in Will County, but all over the world! But don’t let its size fool you. They have big personalities and big jobs. 

An eastern musk turtle on rocky ground with grass and other vegetation in the background.
An eastern musk turtle. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Here are five facts about our tiniest turtle. 


They have a distinctive look 

At first glance, these turtles look like average river turtles. They have grayish-brown shells and semi-webbed feet. But keep an eye out for a few distinguishing features.

They have: 

  • A domed shell

  • Two distinct yellow lines on their necks

  • A triangular-shaped head, with a pointed snout and a sharp beak 

Hatchlings are the size of a quarter, and adult musk turtles measure 2 inches to 5 inches long when fully grown. That’s about the size of your hand! 

They prefer to walk

Eastern musk turtles are not the best swimmers, so they prefer shallow, slow-moving waters in marshes and wetlands that have a lot of plant life. The low water level is perfect for these turtles, who like to walk to find their dinner.

Hatchlings mostly eat aquatic insects and dead fish. As they get older, they begin to eat more plants and algae. Have you added more vegetables to your diet as you’ve gotten older? 


They can climb

A turtle being held by hand with its bottom shell displayed.
The plastron of an eastern musk turtle. (Photo by Jenna Krukowski)

Yes, you read that right. A climbing turtle! But they can’t swing from trees like humans and monkeys, or even climb that far. One possible reason they have this climbing skill is their smaller plastron, or bottom shell. This gives them extra space to move their legs, allowing them to bask on fallen trees sticking out or large branches hanging over the water. Imagine a turtle accidentally falling off a branch into your kayak as you paddle down a river! 


Words to know

Distinguishing: A characteristic of a person or thing that serves to identify it.

Indicator: A measurement that gives an idea of what something is like. 

Plastron: The bottom plate of a turtle’s shell. The top part of the shell is called the carapace.


Even with this ability, musk turtles spend most of their time in the water. They are most active during the very early hours of the morning and the evening until shortly after dark.

They have big jobs

Three eastern musk turtles on the muddy ground.
Three eastern musk turtles. (Photo via Shutterstock)

These tiny turtles are an indicator species. Indicator species are organisms that are more sensitive to changes in their environment than others. The size of their population or absence in an area tell scientists specific information about a particular ecosystem.

Is the water polluted? Is there not enough food? Those are just a few questions that scientists ask. Because they spend so much time in the water, small changes in their habitat are a big deal for this turtle species. 


They’re a little defensive

Being this small means you need more defenses. One of their defenses is their ability to bite. In fact, hatchlings can be confused with young snapping turtles due to their readiness to bite when handled. Wasting no time, they can bite right after hatching. And it doesn’t matter where your fingers are. Their necks can reach all the way back to their hind legs.  

Yet another name for the eastern musk turtle is the stinkpot turtle. They earned this nickname because they release a substance with a foul, musky smelling odor when they are threatened, just like skunks. Be warned: Don’t be a stinker and pick up turtles you find, unless you are helping them cross a road! 


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