Thursday, June 5, 2014

Common Musk Turtle

A couple weeks ago I went out on an early morning hike at AW Marion State Park in Pickaway County. As I got to the other side of the dam there I noticed an Eastern Milk Snake basking on the trail. Creeping forward, camera ready, I edged closer and closer to the snake. Sadly, it quickly slithered away into the rocks along the dam, leaving a disappointed blogger (although I did have an encounter with another Milk Snake later, which you can read about here.) However, I turned around and walked about fifteen more feet and saw another reptile...

Common Musk Turtle
Meet the Common Musk Turtle, Sternotherus odoratus. Well, at least the carapace of one. As I went up to her to take a picture, she pulled herself up into her shell for protection. I have to admit, while missing the Milk Snake was disappointing, this encounter made up for it. This species is a very aquatic species, essentially only coming to land to lay eggs. This individual was about thirty to forty feet away from lake which leads me to think I caught a female on the way back to the lake after laying her clutch of eggs.

Common Musk Turtle
I picked her up to get some closer photos to help with identifying later on as I am not that well acquainted with turtles yet. She put on her scariest "Don't get near me or I'll bite" face on, but still stayed within the safety of her shell. So why the name "musk turtle?" Well, like many reptiles, this species has the ability to release musk, a bad smelling liquid, in self defense (the musk is phenolalkalinic acid for anyone interested). This habit has also led to the Common Musk Turtle being known as the Stinkpot. What about identifying these guys? Well, Common Musk Turtles are smaller turtles. The photo above gives you some idea with my hand as a reference. They have highly domed shells, compared to the flatter shells many other aquatic species have. Also, look at the yellow stripe going across the face in the photo above; this characteristic is a really good field mark for identification.

Common Musk Turtle Plastron
Another characteristic worth noting is their small plastron, or the bottom part of the shell. In fact, the plastron doesn't do much for protecting the legs and tail, as you can see. Common Musk Turtles, as I mentioned earlier, spend most of their life in the water. In fact, they possess an adaption that allows them to do aquatic respiration. Their tongues are covered in papillae that allow them to take oxygen out of the water, sort of like a fish's gills. This species can be found all throughout Ohio in wetlands and slow moving, vegetated streams.

I am a huge lover of turtles and have been ever since I was little. Having encounters like these are always awesome and very interesting. I'm hoping to also find a Box Turtle this summer, but I haven't been that lucky. Hopefully I'll have more turtle encounters in the next few months.

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