The eastern musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) has a narrow, domed carapace (upper shell) that is brown with black flecking, which is often covered in mud or algae. The head and limbs are dark brown to black, and adults have a light stripe above and below the eye on each side of the head. The plastron (lower shell) is yellowish to brown and hinged at the front, allowing the turtle to pull the front of its plastron partially closed. Hatchlings have a light spot on the marginal scutes (enlarged scales on the edge of the shell). This turtle is named for the strong musky odour that it emits when threatened. This small turtle reaches a maximum carapace length of 13 centimetres.
Painted turtles have multiple bright yellow stripes on the head and legs, as well as a very flat, broad carapace. Blanding’s turtles have a distinct yellow chin and throat. Spotted turtles have large yellow spots on the carapace. Snapping turtles, which get significantly larger than musk turtles, have prominent ridges on the tail and a carapace that is flat and broad with serrations along the rear margin.
This species occurs in rivers, lakes and ponds with a slow current and soft bottom, and usually inhabits shallow water.
View an interactive map of the known ranges of eastern musk turtles in Ontario.
The eastern musk turtle matures in three or four years, which is much earlier than most other Ontario turtles. It nests from late May to early July, usually within 45 metres of water. Generally, the nests contain from two to five eggs and are quite shallow; sometimes the female lays her eggs under logs or on open ground. Hatchlings emerge in the fall and are approximately two centimetres in length. The incubation temperature of the nest determines the gender of the hatchlings.
The eastern musk turtle is generally nocturnal. Instead of basking on rocks or logs as many other turtles do, this species basks under cover of floating vegetation. Eastern musk turtles rarely swim; instead they walk along the bottom of lakes and rivers, where they feed on small invertebrates, algae, carrion, fish eggs, minnows and tadpoles. Some individuals live more than 25 years in the wild.
Other names: stinkpot, common musk turtle, Testudo odorata
Habitat loss and degradation resulting from wetland destruction and shoreline alteration have caused the eastern musk turtle to decline or disappear from many areas where it once occurred, and ongoing habitat loss continues to threaten this species. These turtles do not travel much over land and are not as at risk from road mortality as most other turtle species in Ontario. However, the tendency of these turtles to bask at the surface of the water makes them vulnerable to propeller strikes, largely from boats used for recreation.
Current Status and Protection
The eastern musk turtle is currently listed as Special Concern under the Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007 and Threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act. The species has also been designated as a Specially Protected Reptile under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. These acts offer protection to individuals and their habitat. The habitat of this species is further protected in Ontario by the Provincial Policy Statement under the Planning Act. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has not yet assessed the global status of the eastern musk turtle. The species’ status was confirmed in January 2010. Additional detail about legal protection for species at risk in Ontario is available on our Legal Protection page.
Learn more about reptile and amphibian conservation and what you can do to help these species on our Reptile and Amphibian Stewardship page.