Mud and Musk Turtles, aka Family Kinosternidae

Go on a walk. A nice walk. Near a pond. Pay attention to the edge of the pond, looking deep into the muck and look for a sudden swoosh of a fist sized rock scooting to deeper water. You have found yourself a member of Kinosternidae, the musk and mud turtles.

This Stinkpot is a cute little bugger, isn’t it?

As far as North Carolina is concerned, there are two genus in Kinosternidae: the musk turtles, Kinosternon, and the mud turtles, Sternotherus, all of which are about the same size and covered in slime. All the local species are smallish turtles, think guinea pig or maybe a decent sized potato, and prefer to bask while submerged. All can hibernate in the bottoms of ponds, and will eat a variety of worms, small fish, bits of plants or fried chicken if you have picnic leftovers.

Please do not feed turtles fried chicken.

What is the Difference Between Musk and Mud Turtles?

This is one of these things where scientific name is partially helpful, so let’s get some base definitions of the bits of the words involved.

  • Kino: of or pertaining to movement.
  • Sterno: Chest or breast.
  • Theros: pivit or axel.

Mud turtles (Sternotherus-chest hinge) have two hinges on their plastron, allowing them to protect both their heads and their tails. So the chest can pivot on an axel. Make sense? Musk turtles (Kinosternon) have only one. If you’ve slightly disturbed your mystery slimy potato/turtle, a mud turtle will seal itself up completely while a musk turtle will rely on a different defense and stink, hence the musk part of the name. So your two choices are: does it close itself up or does it reek? Closing up = mud, stinky = musk. And there you go.

Plastron of a Stinkpot

Here’s a few other differences:

  • Musk turtles have a keel or ridge on the carapace. Keel = Musk.
  • Musk turtles have whiskery bumps/pointy warts called barbles on their chins. Think of an odorous beard. Hygiene isn’t much a thing with musk turtles anyway.
  • Mud turtles have a flat carapace and remember that mud is flat.
  • Mud turtles do not have barbels and remember that mud is smooth.

The take home is that if your slimy potato is smooth, it’s a mud turtle; if it’s bumpy/warty/ridgy and stinks, it’s a musk turtle.

Damn it! Found an awesome video showing the differences, and also what happens if you keep annoying the turtles and pushing on their hinges. Then someone eats some hot sauce. But there’s no mention of copyright. So you’ll just have to follow this lovely link instead of watching a nice embedded video. Enjoy.

Kinosternidae of the Piedmont Species List

We have two native musk turtles and two native mud turtles.

See? Looks like a slimy potato

Kinosternon subrurum, the common mud turtle, is the more common (duh), so that’s a better guess if you’ve narrowed the slimy potato down to being a mud turtle. Add another subrubrum (Kinosternon subrubrum subrubrum) and you get an eastern mud turtle, which is the local subspecies, allowing you to sound even fancier. Kinosternon baurii, the stripped mud turtle, has stripes on its head, but again, we’re back to them being covered in muck most of the time. If you’re in the Piedmont, say it’s Kinosternon subrubrum subrubrum and give a superior look. You are unlikely to be challenged, but you may be avoided.

There’s a similar pattern with the musk turtles. Sternotherus odorous, the common musk turtle, aka Stinkpot, is the more common. The stripeneck musk turtle, Sternotherus minor pelter, is pretty much stuck to the Appalachians so you can ignore it. However, it does have stripes on its neck. This easy nomenclature is not the way biology is supposed to work.

Next week, Snappers!

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