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Smooth softshell turtle
Midland Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica mutica) (9236915356).jpg
Conservation status
Scientific classification
  • Trionyx muticus
    Lesueur, 1827
  • Aspidonectes muticus
    — Wagler, 1830
  • Gymnopus muticus
    — A.M.C. Duméril, Bibron &A.H.A. Duméril, 1854
  • Amyda mutica
    Agassiz, 1857
  • Trionyx muticus
    — Webb, 1959
  • Apolone mutica
    — Meylan, 1987
Apalone mutica mutica
  • Trionyx pusilla
    Rafinesque, 1822
  • Trionyx muticus
    Lesueur, 1827
  • Aspidonectes muticus
    — Wagler, 1830
  • Gymnopus muticus
    — A.M.C. Duméril, Bibron & A.H.A. Duméril, 1854
  • Amyda mutica
    — Agassiz, 1857
  • Potamochelys microcephalus
    Gray, 1864
  • Callinia microcephala
    — Gray, 1869
  • Potamochelys microcephala
    Boulenger, 1889
  • Trionyx muticus muticus
    — Webb, 1959
  • Apalone mutica
    — Meylan, 1987
  • Apalone muticus
    — Meylan & Webb, 1988
  • Apalone mutica mutica
    — Ernst & R. Barbour, 1989
  • Apalone mutica mutica
    — Stubbs, 1989
  • Trionix muticus
    — Richard, 1999
Apalone mutica calvata
  • Trionyx pusilla
    Rafinesque, 1822
    (nomen suppressum)
  • Trionyx muticus calvatus
    Webb, 1959
  • Apalone mutica calvata
    — Ernst & R. Barbour, 1989
  • Apalone mutica calvata
    — Stubbs, 1989

The smooth softshell turtle (Apalone mutica) is a species of softshell turtle of the family Trionychidae. The species is endemic to North America.

Geographic range

A. mutica is native to North America. It is distributed throughout the central and southcentral United States as its geographic range extends from western Pennsylvania to New Mexico and south to the Florida panhandle. Smooth softshells turtles inhabit the Mississippi River drainage from Louisiana up to North Dakota and Pennsylvania, as well as the Colorado, Brazos, Sabine, and Pearl, Alabama and Escambia river systems. Two subspecies of A. mutica have been identified. The midland smooth softshell, Apalone mutica mutica, is found throughout the central United States. The other subspecies, Apalone mutica calvata, is found ranging from Louisiana to the panhandle of Florida.


Both subspecies of A. mutica are typically found in medium to large unpolluted rivers with moderate to fast currents, but are also found in standing water bodies like lakes, ponds and marshes. They prefer water with sand or mud bottoms, without rocky areas or dense vegetation. Sandbanks must also be present.


The smooth softshell turtle has an anapsid skull. This kind of skull is present among the earliest reptiles and is retained by turtles today. The anapsid skull lacks openings behind the orbits. The smooth softshell turtle has a smooth, flexible and leather like carapace that is covered by skin instead of the hard scutes commonly observed in other turtle species. The plastron is light (white or gray) with no markings, and the underlying bones are visible. Smooth softshell turtles have a tubular snout with round nostrils.

Similar species

Smooth softshell turtles may be easily confused with the spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera), as the differences between the two species are subtle. Spiny softshell turtles have a rough carapace with spines along the front edge while, as the name implies, smooth softshell turtles lack such spines. Additionally, the white chin and throat of the smooth softshell are unmarked, compared to the splotchy chin and throat of the spiny softshell. A. mutica is the only species of North American softshell with round nostrils; all other species have ridges on the nasal septum which make the nostrils C-shaped.


Smooth softshell turtles are mostly carnivorous, eating aquatic insects, crayfish, fish and amphibians. Although primarily carnivorous, they sometimes resort to eating vegetation such as algae, vegetables, fruits, and nuts.


Breeding of the smooth softshell turtle occurs from April to June. The mating system utilized by these turtles is polygyny, meaning that males will mate with more than one female. Males actively seek out females by approaching other adults. If the other party is male or a non-receptive female, aggression may be displayed. However, if the other party is a receptive female, she remains passive to the advancements of the males. Copulation usually occurs in deep pools as the male mounts the female. The nesting period is usually from May to July as females only lay eggs once a year. During this period, adult females of A. mutica lay clutches of 3 to 28 eggs not more than 100 m (330 ft) from water in sandy areas. Eggs generally hatch 8 to 12 weeks later with the highest frequency of hatching being between August and September. Hatchlings average a weight of 5.4 g (0.19 oz) and have a carapace length of 4 cm (1.6 in). Male smooth softshell turtles become sexually mature during their fourth year and females become sexually mature during their ninth year.

Female turtles offer prenatal care for their offspring. They produce high levels of non-polar lipids that provide energy for their growing embryos. This energy is more than enough to keep the embryos alive. The high concentration of lipids also offer an advantage at birth as it acts as a food source until they hatchlings become mature enough to commence feeding. This type of care is also known as parental investment in embryogenesis. However, after hatching no physical parental care is given.

Life history

Smooth softshell turtles are the most aquatic of the softshell turtles as they are often referred to as "swimmers". They are able to stay underwater for extended periods of time due to their long neck and their snout. They often bury themselves in the sand substrate at the bottom of the river or pool just deep enough so that their snout barely reaches the surface. Additionally, the skin covering the shell allows for a high rate of gas exchange. This enables the turtles to stay submerged for a long period of time. In this position, they often wait for prey to pass and utilize their long neck to capture their prey.

These turtles hibernate in the months of October to March. They hibernate by burying themselves in substrate underwater. After emerging from hibernation, these turtles are often found on land basking in the sun. Given that their shell is a soft shell, they are unable to stay in the sun for extended periods of time. When basking, they are wary of their surroundings and if any threat presents itself, they are quick to abandon their basking site in seek of safety. Their agility on land and water make them a hard prey for predators such as raccoons, humans, alligators and snapping turtles. They seek shelter from these threats by diving and concealing themselves in mud.

Conservation status

Currently, the smooth softshell turtle is considered a species of least conservation concern. However, the species is still facing some wide-ranged threats. These threats include habitat degradation, harvesting for food, and an increase in human disturbances at nesting sites. Additionally, due to their skin's high rate of gas exchange, they are very susceptible to polluted waters. As a result of all of these factors, the smooth softshell turtle has been listed as a species of special concern in Minnesota and Wisconsin.


Two subspecies are recognized, including the nominotypical subspecies.

  • Apalone mutica calvata (Webb, 1959)
  • Apalone mutica mutica (Lesueur, 1827)

Nota bene: A trinomial authority in parentheses indicates that the subspecies was originally described in a genus other than Apalone.

Sympatric species

Apalone mutica is sympatric with the spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera) over much of its range.

  • Behler JL, King FW (1979). The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 743 pp. ISBN: 0-394-50824-6. (Trionyx muticus, pp. 484–485 + Plates 268, 269).
  • Boulenger GA (1889). Catalogue of the Chelonians, Rhynchocephalians, and Crocodiles in the British Museum (Natural History). New Edition. London: Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History). (Taylor and Francis, printers). x + 311 pp. + Plates I-V. (Trionyx muticus, pp. 260–262, Figure 68).
  • Lesueur CA (1827). "Note sur deux espèces de tortues, du genre Trionyx de M[onsieur]. Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire ". Mémoires du Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris 15: 257-268 + Plates 6-7. (Trionyx muticus, new species, pp. 263–266 + Plate 7). (in French).
  • Smith HM, Brodie ED Jr (1982). Reptiles of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. New York: Golden Press. 240 pp. ISBN: 0-307-13666-3. (Trionyx muticus, pp. 32–33).
  • Stejneger L, Barbour T (1917). A Check List of North American Amphibians and Reptiles. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 125 pp. (Amyda mutica, p. 124).
  • Webb RG (1959). "Description of a New Softshell Turtle From the Southeastern United States". Univ. Kansas Pub., Mus. Nat. Hist. 11 (9): 517-525. (Trionyx muticus calvatus, new subspecies).
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