The Musk Turtle, an Ideal Pet

A mature musk turtle in a planted tank.The musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), sometimes affectionately referred to as the “stinkpot,” does not have the bright colors, bold basking behavior, and the instant name recognition of the more common basking turtles, like red-eared sliders and painted turtles. However, the musk turtle is a fascinating aquatic turtle species that is arguably a much better captive for the average turtle keeper. Let’s take a closer look at Sternotherus odoratus and see exactly what makes it such a great pet turtle.

Must Turtle Tank Setup

To understand how to house these turtles, it’s a good idea to know a bit about their biology and native habitat. The musk turtle is a highly aquatic species with very modest proportions and characteristic thin yellow striping on the head and neck (which quickly differentiates them from similar mud turtles). Adults typically get no larger than 2 to 5 inches in total carapace length. Hatchlings are tiny, and exhibit a keeled “razorback” midline along their shell, which gradually subsides as they mature until a very smooth domed appearance is reached in the fully mature individual.

The musk turtle has a wide distribution throughout much of the eastern half of North America, and even extends northward into southeastern Canada. The classic habitat of the mud turtle is still or slow-moving shallow waters with a soft bottom. This species will leave the water at times, but this is relatively rare, and it usually does not spend significant time basking (although this varies between individuals). In the wild, it is most often seen foraging at night, but these species can also be active during the day, especially when in captivity where its movements will revolve largely around feeding schedule.

A tiny hatchling musk turtle found on a trail!Besides making less use of basking areas, another important distinction between mud turtles and basking turtles is the way they move. Musk turtles are relatively poor swimmers and do not float or tread water like a slider or painted turtle. Instead, they simply crawl on the bottom to get from point A to B. Consequently, having a shallower, more developed aqua-scape with a bit of substrate and/or submerged bogwood, rocks, bricks or other items will be appreciated and facilitate their fascinating underwater roaming behavior. Likewise, when designing a land area for musk turtles, which should definitely be present regardless whether it is lightly used, take care to set up an easy-to-maneuver slope that the turtle can easily use when approaching from the floor of the tank.

Although they are highly aquatic, they do not need deep water (no more than 2 inches of water for hatchlings and a 6-inch depth for adults is normally sufficient), and strong currents generated from filters should be attenuated to more approximate their slow-water native habitats.

A heated basking area should be provided, and it also a good idea to include a UV-B emitting bulb. However, as individuals seem to vary as to how much they will use them, it’s critically important to ensure that they are being fed calcium-enriched turtle food and given calcium and D3 supplements.

Perhaps one of the greatest things about the musk turtle is that their small adult size compared to basking turtles and most other common highly aquatic species (like common snapping turtles) allows them to be housed in smaller aquaria. A single adult can be kept in a 20 gallon “long” and a pair should thrive in a 40 gallon aquarium. Given their greater affinity for the water, an aquarium is ideal since it gives you a much better view of their underwater activities.Hatchling musk turtles should be kept in shallow, slow-moving water.

This species should not need any water heater if kept at typical household temperatures, but if kept in a cool room, a low-wattage heater should be used to maintain temperatures around 70-75F.

In case you’re wondering, the musk turtle does in fact produce a foul “musk” in the wild if molested by predators. However, you are likely to never experience this in captivity, and there seems to be little risk of “musking” during typical light handling. Turtles should be handled as little as possible anyway.

Feeding Musk Turtles

Underside of a musk turtle showing the reduced plastron typical of the genus.Musk turtles make up for their small size with a very hearty appetite. They do not need any special diet and should be given standard turtle food. They are omnivores in nature and will greedily accept most food items with little reservation. There are conflicting reports about how much vegetation they will actually consume, but they should definitely be offered some greens, such as duckweed and Elodea, as well as typical fresh food items like chopped nightcrawlers, crickets, and small mealworms.

Sexing Musk Turtles

Males and females are outwardly very similar, especially juveniles. Sexing of more mature animals is possible however, as males are normally smaller and have relatively longer tails that possess a terminal tail spike.

Musk Turtles – The Verdict

These are amusing and very undemanding turtles that are not picky about food or their enclosure. Moreover, their small size makes them much better suited to indoor aquaria, which is the best way to appreciate their bottom-roving behavior and nearly constant search for food. Remember that they do need a small basking area, and should be kept in shallower, slower-moving water than your average slider. Also, give them an easy way out of the water and make sure they are eating at least some enriched dry food fortified with vitamin D3 and calcium. With just a little care, you should enjoy your musk turtle for a very, very long time. For more information, check out this musk turtle profile by the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.

Turtle photo credits (in order of appearance):

Laurent Lebois under CC BY 2.0

A. Drauglis under CC BY-SA 2.0

Clira Naxos under CC BY-SA 2.0

Laurent Lebois under CC BY 2.0

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