Wild South Florida — Florida Softshell Turtle
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Florida Softshell Turtle
soft shell turtle
Florida softshell turtle pearing out of the water at Green Cay Nature Center in Boynton Beach.

The Florida softshell turtle, Apalone ferox, stands apart from other freshwater turtles found in the Sunshine State by two main features: an extremely long nose and flipper-like feet.

They spend most of their lives in water, rarely appearing on dry land but are surprisingly quick on terra firma when need be. That snorkel-like nose at the end of an extremely long nectk might be the only part of the softshell above the water line. They also have a lining in their throats that absorbs oxygen from water, enabling a softshell to stay submerged for hours.

There are 26 turtle species found in Florida, but this is the only softshell. The top of the shell is olive-green or brown, blending in perfectly with the mucky bottom of a wetland, pond or lake. Young softshells have a pattern on the shell — seen in the photo below — that disappears as the turtle ages.

Like other softshells worldwide, they are big, growing to 30 inches or more in length and weighing as much as 44 pounds. We've seen them only in freshwater, but they can tolerate some salt.

They are hunters, dining on fish, snails, bugs, frogs and birds, using their long necks to strike their prey in ambush fashion. And lest you think they are meek creatures, ferox means ferocious. If they feel threatened, softshells will snap at anything that comes within reach of their sharp claws and teeth.

soft shell turtle young

Breeding season for Florida softshells begins in early spring in the southern reaches of the Sunshine State, and continues into July. Females clamber out of the water and dig holes in a sandy bank, where they'll lay as many as 30 eggs. They'll repeat the process 5 to 7 times during a season, laying as many as 225 eggs altogether.

Like other turtles, they will attempt to lay their eggs in an alligator's nest. It's a dangerous game they play, but if successful, the eggs gain the protection of the alligator mom. And that's huge, because the list of animals that eat turtle eggs is a long one — raccoons, bears, foxes, skunks and crows are among the predators.

The eggs hatch after two or three months; young turtles, about an inch-and-a-half long and prey for birds, frogs, small gators, snakes and small mammals, head for cover and stay there, hoping to beat the odds and reach maturity.

Florida softshells are found along the coastal plain from Florida to South Carolina. In colder weather, they will hibernate.

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