Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Midland Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica mutica) from the Little Miami River

Up where I live, the Little Miami River is speckled with rocky beaches and is held captive by cliffs and towering hills of woods and dolomite outcroppings. Near its headwaters upstream, it flows through even steeper gorges carved out by glacial meltwater. The dolomite cliffs at Clifton Gorge in Yellow Springs are so steep they create a microclimate that allows hemlock trees and white cedars (boreal relics from seeds swept down and deposited by the Wisconsinan continental glacier 10,000-15,000 years ago) to thrive in the cooler, shaded forests of the gorges. Further down the river, near me, Fort Ancient is the largest ancient earthen hilltop enclosure in the world, perched on land that rises 240 feet above the river, and its narrow rocky and muddy corridor keeps the water moving along swiftly, but after the river flows past the stretch I walk and canoe or kayak, its banks and bottom slowly start to change until mile after mile, the gorges disappear and the land flattens out. As it flows through Cincinnati and nears its mouth at the Ohio river, the Little Miami widens and the banks and river bottom become more sandy, and sandbars can be found here and there too, moving and shifting each year with the rains and currents. This newer habitat creates an ideal playground for Midland Smooth Softshell turtles...



Midland Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica mutica)

A male Midland Smooth Softshell Turtle rests in the sand along the Little Miami River at Armleder Park in Cincinnati. Here, where the river nears its confluence with the Ohio river, the river bottom and banks are sandy and support a population of smooth softshell turtles. Paul Krusling knows where the smooth softshells live in the Little Miami, so two weeks ago I met up with Paul and Joe at Armleder to photograph this guy.

Last summer, Rick and I kayaked and canoed the Little Miami river many times always hopeful we'd see a Midland Smooth sunning on a log, but we didn't. The habitat was not right. The rocky, muddy corridors and river bottoms do not appeal to the smooth softshells. Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtles, however, love the parts of the Little Miami we paddled on, and we saw well over 30 turtles. There is just enough sand mixed in with the mud for them to thrive, but two weeks ago, I finally saw my first Midland Smooth Softshell in the Little Miami (up until then, all the smooth softshell turtles I photographed were from the Great Miami River, a much larger and sandier river). Paul and Joe were heading to Armleder Park, so I met up with them to photograph the Smoothy.


At first glance, the two softshell turtles look a lot a like. They are both flat like pancakes (and are sometimes commonly called pancake turtles) and have carapaces with no scutes--thus the "soft shell" (scutes are the armored, bony plates that make up a turtle's carapace--the upper shell.) You can also see the carapace bones through the soft shell of both species, but when you look closely, differences emerge and are easily recognizable.




Midland Smooth Softshells (Apalone mutica mutica) have an apricot or peach-colored stripe that runs from the nose, through the eye, and down the neck. Eastern Spiny Softshells (Aplone spinifera spinifera) have a yellowish stripe. I was surprised at how "peach" mutica's stripe really was!




...another color to look for...blue! If you turn a Midland Smooth Softshell turtle's foot over, you'll find a blue pad. It's quite a surprise!! Here Paul held the turtle upside down so I could snap off a quick shot. The brave turtle didn't seem to mind.




...and talking about feet. Look at that webbing! Apalone mutica mutica is a very fast swimmer--the fastest swimming turtle in our area. Of course, the Spiny softshell has webbed feet too, but not quite as extensive. The Spiny Softshell turtle can bite and is more aggressive than this Smooth Softshell turtle. Maybe being just a little faster in the water makes up for the more passive nature of the Smooth Softshell turtle, which doesn't bite. Another noticeable difference...Smoothys have less noticeable markings on their legs.



A very visible difference between the two species relates to their namesakes! As you can see here, the Smooth Softshell turtle has no spines or ridges at the edge of the carapace. It's smooth! The Spiny Softshell turtle has spines and bumps (click here to see the spines of a Spiny).




...and last but not least, the carapace pattern visible on males and young Midland Smooth Softshell turtles is much different than the pattern that shows on Spiney Softshells (click here for the Spiney Softshell carapace pattern of dark circles called ocelli). Smooth Softshells have dots and dashes. This is an older male Smooth Softshell so his pattern is a bit faded (click here to see a very visible pattern on a baby Smoothy). The females of both species develop a similar pattern. Sherman Minton, Jr. in "Amphibians & Reptiles of Indiana" refers to the pattern as "lichenoid," which perfectly describes the blotchy, lichen-like look (click here to see a female softshell turtle's carapace pattern).


I have more photos of this fellow and a video of him swimming away in the water too. I'll work on getting them posted soon.

28 comments:

Andrew said...

Many thanks for sharing this wonderful creature... stunning images.

TexWisGirl said...

they look like they have a ton of personality in those faces! amazing shots, kelly!

Frank said...

Thanks Kelly for the informative lesson about the 'Smoothy' plus the glorious close ups.

Linda said...

Happy Easter Kelly!! I have enjoyed reading about this unique turtle..The markings are so interesting ...beautiful photos and blog..cheers! I invite you to my new blog, ...thanks, Linda :)

Carole M. said...

they're really wonderful photographs, and I am amused by the longish snout, and intruiged especially how the skeleton shows through the shell in the male!

KaHolly said...

Kelly, I was captivated by this wonderful post. Your skills as a writer and a photographer are surpassed only by your artistic abilities. What an odd looking turtle!! I've never seen one quite like it before. Happy Easter. ~karen

ShySongbird said...

Wonderful photos and a most interesting post! They look so odd with that pointy snout, rather like our Hedgehogs!

Lovely to see the Owl on the previous post, I can never find them here.

Wishing you and yours a Very Happy Easter, Kelly :-)

Bob Bushell said...

They are smooth aren't they, I love them all. gREAT PHOTOS.

Mary said...

wow...glad you identified this guy. I think I saw one once and didn't know what it was. Great detail shots!

annandalerealtor said...

I love your Blog and currently receive it via email. However, I am in the process of transferring all subscriptions/follows over to FB and do not see how to do that with your Blog. Can you instruct me?

Thanks and keep up the awesome work.

Simmie

annandalerealtor said...

Kelly, here's another question while I'm thinking about your blog.

Do you ever lead nature hikes/walks or at least invite folks to join yours? Perhaps you prefer to be able to be a silent visitor where you walk, but once in a while I think it would be great to have a few folks go along and look through your eyes.

Just a thought. Thanks.
Simmie

Chris said...

What a funny turtle. I love it shell from the above and these nice drawing and the snoot is even better. Thanks for sharing Kelly...

Kerri said...

What an awesome creature! Your images WOW me!

Elaine said...

Wonderful photos! Very interesting post. You always have something new to teach us.

Mary Ann Gieszelmann said...

What an unusual face for a turtle! They look like little crocodiles.

Kelly, you got me poking through my collection of maps (a distraction I love) to find Ohio and the Little Miami River. Growing up in suburban Cincinnati, my only river memory is of the Ohio. I had no idea that there would be such a thing as the Clifton Gorge. I looked it up online and realized that I would love to spend time hiking around there. Thanks for opening up this whole new world to me!

Gillian Olson said...

What an interesting looking turtle, that pointy nose is really something. Thanks for sharing these pictures and details on this facinating creature.

Hilke Breder said...

Fabulous shots, Kelly! Such a serious trustful-looking fellow! He belongs into a picture book = E.B. White would have written a story around him as would Kenneth Grahame :-)

Guy said...

Hi Kelly

I always love your posts on turtles. I also really enjoyed your description of the area I got a good feel for it. It sounds lovely.

Regards
Guy

Tammie Lee said...

these turtles are amazing to see!
i love all the photos of different views of them.
thank you for sharing a turtle from your area with us!

Kelly said...

...thanks, everyone! These turtles are amazing. I have more photos and a video, but I have to get them together. I was so happy to learn the Midland Smooth Softshells live in my favorite river--although a lot further south! (Anna...I mostly hike alone or with Rick and Matty because of my schedule. I hike every now and then with a few birding friends. I will try to put something together. It would be great to get a group together. I'm a pretty shy person, so it comes natural to me to hike by myself! As for Facebook.....I'm probably the last person on earth to "get" it. Actually...I just don't get it. I'll try to start posting my blog posts to Facebook. People have asked me to push the posts to Facebook, so I'll give it a try.

Scott Simmons said...

Cool! Looks a lot like the FL softshell turtles we have here.

Vicente Niclos said...

Wanderfull gallery of apalone mutica

Vicente Niclos said...

Wanderfull gallery of apalone mutica

Steve Kallmeyer said...

I just found a Midland Softshell Turtle in a small stream that feeds Winton Woods Lake.

Steve Kallmeyer said...

I have just found a Midland Softshell Turtle in the small stream that runs in front of my house and feeds into Winton Woods lake. It is about 1 1/2 inches in diameter.

Kelly said...

Steve...that's awesome! I'm going to let my friend, Paul, know. He watches for Midlands. Right now, I've only seen them in the Great Miami and the Little Miami near the Ohio. Great find!

Robin said...

I saw one of these today at Glenwood Gardens. Thanks for posting the pictures. I had no idea what it was.

gregg Blagg said...

I caught one today while I was fishing in Shreve Ohio didint know what it was thanks