Turtles are reptiles classified in the Testudines order. Like all reptiles, they are cold-blooded creatures, relying on the air and water around them to regulate their internal body temperature. Turtles are easily identifiable by their shells, which distinguish them from all other creatures. Their shells aren't exoskeletons; rather they are comparable to the ribs and spines of humans. Sixteen species of turtles in four families live in the state of Tennessee.
The Chelydridae family of snapping turtles consists of three species, two of which live in Tennessee: common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) and alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys stemminckii). Unlike other turtles, snappers have large heads and limbs they cannot completely retract into their shells. Snapping turtles spend most of their time in ponds and streams. As their name suggests, they are highly aggressive, and have been known to kill other turtles by biting their heads off. They eat fish, birds, amphibians, small mammals, reptiles and virtually anything else that comes within biting distance.
Box and Water Turtles
Tennessee hosts nine species of the Emydidae family of box and water turtles. These common turtles are found near lakes, rivers, ponds and streams throughout the state. Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina) are primarily terrestrial; the others spend more time in the water. Box and water turtles in Tennessee include painted turtles (Chrysemys picta), Southern painted turtles (Chrysemys dorsalis), bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii), northern map turtles (Graptemys geographica), Ouachita map turtles (Graptemys ouachitensis), false map turtles (Graptemys pseudogeographica), river cooters (Pseudemys concinna) and pond sliders (Trachemys scripta).
Musk and Mud Turtles
Three species in the Kinosternidae family of musk and mud turtles inhabit slow-moving bodies of water in Tennessee. As their name suggests, these turtles give off a foul odor when handled or threatened. They eat crustaceans and mollusks, insects, amphibians and small fish. Eastern mud turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum), loggerhead musk turtles (Sternotherus minor) and Eastern musk turtles (Sternotherus odoratus) can be found in and around Tennessee waterways.
Of the 25 species of softshell turtles in the Trionychidae family, two live in Tennessee. Softshell turtles spend their lives buried in the mud bottoms of rivers and streams. Unlike other turtles', their shells are soft and leathery rather than hard and bony. Smooth softshell turtles (Apalone mutica) prefer large rivers with swifter currents that have sandy bottoms with little aquatic vegetation. Spiny softshell turtles (Apalone spinifera), the other softshell species found in Tennessee, live in a wider variety of water habitats, including slower-moving streams as well as lakes and marshes with very little current. Like smooth softshells, spiny softshells need a sandy or muddy floor with little to no vegetation.
- Austin Peay State University: Atlas of Reptiles in Tennessee
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Chelydridae—Information
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Emydidae—Information
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Kinosternidae—Information
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Trionychidae—Information
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Testudines—Information
Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.