Creature Feature: Spiny Soft-shelled Turtle

Spiny Soft Shell Turtle

Apalone (Trionyx) spinifera

Reptiles Alive Name: “Apalone”

Hissstory: Apalone was transferred to us from the Virginia Living Museum in February 2005.

RA Diet: Apalone likes to eat aquatic turtle pellet food, worms, crickets and super worms.

Natural Diet: Soft shclled turtles prey on fish, worms, insects, tadpoles, and frogs.

Range: Spiny soft-shelled turtles live in much of the eastern United States.  They are found in the far southwestern corner of Virginia and there is a tiny population of them in far western Maryland.

Habitat: Hangouts for soft-shelled turtles include slow moving water with muddy or sandy bottoms.

Size: Spiny soft-shelled turtle females can grow to about 15 inches long.  Male spiny soft-shells are much smaller and grow to around 8 inches.

Lifespan: Soft-shelled turtles can live over 25 years.

Reproduction: Soft-shelled turtles lay from 4 to 33 spherical eggs on land in the spring. The eggs hatch around August and September.  Sometimes, the  eggs & babies remain in the nest and  hatch in the spring.

 Soft-shelled turtles are being over- harvested for the Asian food market.  They are now a threatened and protected species in parts of their range, including Maryland.

Cool Facts: Soft-shelled turtles are very bizarre looking turtles. They have a smooth, leathery shell that looks so different from other turtle species. This shell is made of bone like other turtles, but it is covered in thick skin made of keratin.  The lighter shell allows these turtles to rocket through the water away from strong alligator jaws.

Reptiles Alive Question/Answer Time…

We receive questions about reptiles every day from people at our shows, on the phone, or from email.  Here is a question we recently received:

You recently came to my school and preformed for us. I was amazed with the reptiles you brought!
My mom said I can choose a new pet and I wanted a snake! But when I told my mom I wanted a snake she said “it can’t bite that often! And try to find a snake that won’t eat us!” So I have been looking online but I am having a hard time finding one that fits that profile! Can you help me? Or are there any places around Lorton that sell snakes that are well taken for? Thank you!


We do not generally recommend snakes as pets. They are more difficult to care for properly than most people imagine and often become sick, unwanted or worse.

However, if you are committed to caring for your pet properly, I highly suggest adopting a snake instead of purchasing one from the pet store. Since snakes don’t make good pets, there are many, many snakes at animal rescue groups and shelters.

All snakes will bite – so if you get a pet snake, expect that it will bite you at least sometimes.

A few snakes that are typically available in rescue groups that do not get more than 6 feet long:
Ball python
Corn snake
King snake

Please do a lot of research on each of these species BEFORE making you decision. Make an appointment with a veterinarian who treats reptiles.  In the northern Virginia area we recommend Stahls Exotic Animal Veterinary Clinic.

Make the appointment for the week of your adoption so that your animal can get a check up and you can be sure that you have all the right equipment and information to properly care for your pet.

Here are few possible places where you can adopt a snake:

The Animal Welfare League of Alexandria Animal Shelter

Virginia Reptile Rescue

There are many other animal rescue groups that adopt reptiles to the public.  You can do a search for “reptile rescue” and find many of them.

Good luck!

Herpetological Spring has SPRUNG!

Last weekend we had some beautiful early April weather here in Northern Virginia.  After our brutal winter – we deserved it!  We headed out to Hemlock Overlook Regional Park to look for some signs of herpetological spring.  And we found it!

Our first find was one of the most common vertebrate creatures in the eastern United States:  the red-backed salamander.


Red-backed salamanders come in three different colors:  red backed, yellow backed and black or “lead” backed.


An unstriped or “lead-back” red-backed salamander.

Red-backed salamanders are different from many other amphibians.  They are members of the lungless group of salamanders – so they get all their oxygen absorbed into their blood stream through their slimy skin.  They also lay their eggs on land and the the larvae go through metamorphosis in the egg.  So, red-backed salamanders never have to leave the land to lay eggs in the water the way most amphibians do.

Toads, on the other hand, must return to the water each year to mate and lay eggs.  At Hemlock, the woods were alive with the pleasant music of male toads singing to attract females.


American Toad

The male will “hug” the female (the science word for this toad hug is amplexus), and the female will lay hundreds of eggs encased in gelatinous goo into the water.


In a few weeks, the temporary pools in our area will be filled with millions of black tadpoles that will quickly grow tiny legs and metamorphose into tiny toadlets.  To attract insect and slug eating toads into your garden, consider adding a toad home

We did not find any snakes on our trip at Hemlock, but the next day, one of Caroline’s neighbors called her to come and get a visitor out of her bathroom.


Baby Black Rat Snake removed from a bathroom!

Yep, I would definitely say that herpetological spring has sprung!