Article and photos by Linda Hagan, Maryland Master Naturalist Intern
The next turtle ambassador at Fountain Rock is “Axe” the Eastern Musk Turtle who was donated to the park in 2009 and has grown quite a lot since that time although he still appears small. Axe goes on field trips with Nature in Classroom to visit a local elementary school each year. Because he is small he is easy for presenters to handle and show the different carapaces (top shell) between other turtles such as, Toby the Box Turtle and Franklin the Wood Turtle. Each turtle has its own beauty, character, shell shape and patterns. What child doesn’t love looking at turtles?
The Eastern Musk Turtle also known as “Stinkpot” because of the pungent, unpleasant odor it can release as a form of protection from predators. This odor also plays a role in courtship so they can identify possible mates. The fluid, or secretions are yellowish in color and are emitted from four glands along the edges of its shell. The carapace (top shell) is a arched dome which is elongated and smooth. It is often found with algae growing on the carapace which makes it hard to see the irregular pattern of black streaks or spots. It varies in color from gray brown to black. The Eastern Musk Turtle has a much smaller plastron (bottom shell) than the Eastern Mud Turtle who is similar in appearance and shape. Until you compare the two it can be hard to tell them apart. The plastron also has a nonfunctional hinge and brown to yellowish scutes (the individual scales).
This turtle is small in size with its carapace measuring only 2”-4 1/2” in size. The males are slightly larger than the females with a longer and thicker tail with a nail on the tip of it. The Musk Turtle has a long neck so if handling you should hold it to the rear of the carapace. The head has two yellow to white stripes on each side of its head which start at the snout and extend to the back. One stripe is above and the other stripe is below its eyes. The head also has paired barbels (a fleshy filament) growing on its chin and throat.
Although the Eastern Musk Turtle prefers aquatic habitats with slow moving water with soft bottoms, they are poor swimmers. They spend much of their time walking along the bottom in search of food. They are however good climbers and can be found on occasions basking on logs, but for the most part they remain on the bottom of their freshwater homes of ponds, lakes and wetlands. They are more active at night during the warm months of the year.
These turtles will hibernate underwater or near the water for the winter months. They will come out from hibernation by April and will mate during the active period which last until November. Males are thought to become sexually mature at about 4 yrs of age, but the females can take up to 10 yrs to mature. When ready to lay her eggs the female will make a shallow nest under rotting vegetation or fallen logs and nest closely to other turtles. She will lay 2-4 eggs. The hatchlings are our smallest North American turtles being about the size of a penny.
The Eastern Musk Turtle eats a variety of foods which include: small snails, clams, aquatic insects like the nymphs of dragonflies and damselflies and terrestrial insects that fall in the water, worms, crayfish and small tadpoles, aquatic vegetation and carrion.
Habitat destruction and pollution are the major threats to the Eastern Musk Turtles as it is with all turtles.