How To Identify Turtles? [Different Turtle Species Identification Guide]

How To Identify Turtles

Having troubles identifying a turtle? Well, no worries. With the proper guidelines, you can easily determine any turtle’s species.

You can identify your turtle by inspecting the following characteristics. Such as:

  • Carapace
  • Plastron
  • Scutes
  • Skin color
  • Shell color, etc.

This article will provide you with a step by step guide on how to identify turtles. Not only that, but you will also get to learn the distinguishing characteristics of a turtle and a tortoise.

How To Identify Turtles?

Do you know there are more than 356 turtle species in the world right now? And each species has distinct characteristics that make them different from others. Even as an experienced turtle owner, it is quite impossible for anyone to determine a turtle’s species from distance. To be fully sure, inspecting the turtle’s body and a closer look is necessary.

Different turtle species exhibit different physical characteristics. You can not identify all the turtles following the same set of rules. To make the process effortless and simple for you, I am diving all the turtles into 3 groups. Such as,

  1. Freshwater turtle
  2. Sea turtle
  3. Terrestrial turtle

In the upcoming sections, I will discuss how you can determine which group and species a turtle belongs to.

Turtle Body Parts

I have mentioned above that determining a turtle’s species requires observing different physical characteristics. That is why you should get familiar with their body parts first. Here is a quick guide that will help:

  • Carapace: The top or upper portion of the turtle’s shell.
  • Plastron: The bottom or under portion of the turtle’s shell.
  • Scutes: The triangular or geometric shaped sections on the upper shell or carapace. These are also called plates. The plates around the carapace are called marginal scutes. The top middle line of scutes are called vertebrae and the side scutes are referred to as costal.
  • Ridges: These are the nodes that keep the scutes connected.

How To Identify Freshwater Turtle?

Most turtles you pet or see around you fall under this category. The freshwater turtles do not webbed feet or toes, which definitely do not look like flippers. Also, these turtles are smaller compared to the sea turtles. The freshwater turtles can either be fully aquatic or semi-aquatic.

There are many freshwater turtle species all around the world and some of them are really rare. As a turtle keeper or enthusiast, you do not need to know them all. Getting familiar with the physical characteristics of the common freshwater turtles will work for you. Here are some popular freshwater turtle species:

  • Sliders
  • Cooters
  • Painted turtle
  • Map turtle
  • Softshell turtle
  • Snapping turtle
  • Musk turtle
  • Mud Turtle
  • Wood turtle
Cumberland slider
Cumberland slider
red eared slider
red eared slider
yellow bellied slider
yellow bellied slider

Sliders

Sliders have 3 subspecies. Such as,

  1. Red eared slider
  2. Yellow bellied slider
  3. Cumberland slider

Red Eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

  • The whole body is covered with stripes. The neck has less than 16 stripes on it.
  • The red eared sliders have broad red stripes behind their eyes, which seem like ears. The red patch is fainter among the adult females and vague in the babies.
  • The red eared slider’s head, neck, and legs are green with yellow stripes.
  • The carapace is yellowish green and yellow stripes run down the scutes.
  • The plastron is also yellow and each scute has a dark blotchy mark on it.

Yellow Bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta)

  • The yellow bellied sliders have yellow patches behind the eyes. Like the red eared sliders, this spot is vivid in the youngsters.
  • The plastron is solid yellow with black spots.
  • The carapace is dark brown or black with vertical yellow bands running down it.
  • The lower jaw is rounded.

Cumberland Slider (Trachemys scripta troostii)

  • The Cumberland sliders have olive-green colored carapace with yellow patches. Sometimes, the dark olive-green color may give off a brownish shade.
  • Behind each eye, there is a wide or thin yellow mark.
  • These turtles have brown skin with olive or green tint. And like all the slider subspecies, the yellow stripes will also be present.

Cooters

Cooters have yellow stripes on their body just like sliders. But of course, there are differences between these two species. The stripes of the cooters are yellowish white, narrow, and horizontal. On the other hand, the stripes of the sliders lay vertically, right behind the eyes. Also, the marginal scutes of the cooters are not notched at the midpoint.

Cooters have different subspecies. Such as,

  • Peninsula cooter
  • Northern red bellied cooter
  • Florida red bellied cooter
  • Eastern river cooter
  • costal plain cooter

Peninsula cooter (Pseudemys peninsularis)

  • These turtles have a plain yellow or tan belly.
  • On each side, you will observe several smudges.
  • The shell is shallow at the edges.
  • The carapace looks like a steep curve.
  • Their body color can range from olive green to light green with a yellow shade.

Northern Red Bellied Turtle (Pseudemys rubriventris)

  • The Northern red bellied turtles have red to the reddish-orange plastron.
  • The carapace is olive brown to black with red and yellow lines on each scute.
  • The edge of the plastron creates a red/pink/reddish-orange margin around it.

Florida Red Bellied Cooter (Pseudemys nelsoni)

  • These Florida red bellied cooters have a red belly. The plastron of the female ones may range between yellow to orange color.
  • They have two cusps on the upper jaw.
  • The carapace has wide red bars on the top.

Eastern River Cooter (Pseudemys concinna concinna)

  • The eastern river cooters have heavily marked plastron.
  • The plastron can be yellow to reddish orange.
  • The head and neck of these turtles have 11 or more stripes on them.
  • The bridges and marginal scutes have more black patches than the other subspecies.
  • The carapace is dark greenish brown.
  • Each scute has yellow stripes on it.

Costal Plain Cooter (Pseudemys concinna floridana)

  • The carapace is greenish to brown with yellow stripes.
  • The plastron is solid yellow with vivid black marks.
  • These turtles have 10 or fewer stripes on their head and neck.

Painted Turtle

I guess the painted turtle is the second most popular turtle species after the red eared slider. This space has a long, oval, and smooth shell with little grooves. The scutes are large and overlap each other.

The painted turtle has bright marks on its body. The carapace color ranges from olive to black, and the plastron is yellow to red with dark marks. Its whole body along with the shell is covered with yellow or red stripes. And a painted turtle has webbed feet.

Like most other turtle species, the painted turtles have 4 subcategories. Such as,

  • Eastern painted turtle
  • Midland painted turtle
  • Western painted turtle
  • Southern painted turtle

Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta picta)

  • The top shell is olive to dark olive brown in color.
  • The shell is bordered by an orange or yellow orange band.
  • The carapace has got vague patterns where the plastron is brightly marked with colors.

Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata)

  • The carapace is olive to dark brown in color.
  • The marginal scutes have a red or dark orange borderline.
  • The carapace of these turtles is wide, smooth, and flat.
  • The plastron has a yellow dark tanned color with a dark, irregular butterfly mark on the middle line.

Western Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii)

  • The shell color ranges from olive to dark olive color.
  • The plastron is bright and has black blotched marks on it.

Southern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta dorsalis)

  • The plastron is solid yellow.
  • Solid color lines are present in the middle of the shell.

Map Turtle (Graptemys)

Identifying a map turtle is easy. The shell of these turtles is olive to dark brown color with yellow or green marks. The stripes almost look like a map drawn over the carapace. This is why these turtles are called map turtles.

The map turtles have another distinguishing characteristic. A spike or kneel runs through the center of the carapace. For that spike, this species is also referred to as the sawback turtle.

The map turtles have almost 14 subspecies. Among them, the Northern map turtles or the common map turtles are the most popular. Here are some physical characteristics of a Northern map turtle:

  • The carapace is olive to yellow in color and heavily marked with yellow stripes. Those markings seem like topographical maps.
  • The plastron is whitish yellow colored.
  • Each side of the head has a yellow mark. Also, the yellow stripes run down the head and neck.

Softshell Turtle

The name indicates what you need to look for to identify a softshell turtle. These turtles have a flat, pliable, and soft shell on their back instead of a hard one. The long pointed, elongated snouts and neck are their distinguishable characteristics. Also, the softshell turtles have webbed feet.

Spiny Softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera)

  • The carapace is green to light brown in color.
  • Circular marks are present on the soft shell.
  • These turtles have light, faded stripes on their face.
  • The nose is long and pig-like.

 Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica)

  • The shell appears to be smooth leather and flexible.
  • The carapace is covered with skin and there are no hard scutes or markings.
  • The plastron is plain gray or white and the bones are visible.

Florida Softshell Turtle (Apalone ferox)

  • The flat, leathery shell seems like a pancake.
  • The color pattern on the carapace is known as countershading or camouflage.
  • Each webbed foot has three claws.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping turtles are rough and tend to attack humans under pressure. The snapping turtles are known for their small plastron which barely covers the flesh. This species has two different subspecies. Such as,

  1. Common snapping turtle
  2. Alligator snapping turtle

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

  • These turtles have longer tails often with spiky ridges compared to other species.
  • The head of a common snapping turtle is huge.
  • This species has distinctive hooked upper beaks.
  • The common snapping turtles can not fully withdraw into the shells.
  • These turtles have keeled scutes. Some turtles lose these ridges with age.

Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

  • The alligator snapping turtles are bigger and have bigger heads.
  • They have 3 complete or incomplete keels on the carapace.
  • The alligator snapping turtles have small, red, and muscle tongues.

Musk Turtle

Another popular turtle species is the musk turtle. This species is divided into several subspecies. Such as,

  • Eastern musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus): These turtles have black or brown shells and the carapace is slightly narrow doomed. The skin and legs are the same color as the shell. There are two light yellow stripes above and below each eye. The plastron is yellowish to brown, relatively small, and has a weak hinge.
  • Razor backed musk turtle (Sternotherus carinatus): This subspecies has a brown shell with black streaks on the edge of the scutes. A sharp high keel runs through the middle of the carapace. The skin color of these turtles is grayish brown with dark dots.
  • Flattened musk turtle (Sternotherus depressus): You can guess the carapace size of this turtle from the name. The top shell is yellow to brown with black dots and the plastron is yellowish brown. The head is light to mild olive covered with dark tiny spots.
  • Loggerhead musk turtle (Sternotherus minor): These turtles have round yellow or gray heads with countless spots or stripes.

Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta)

  • The wood turtles own a unique shell. The carapace can be either brown or gray.
  • Yellow or black lines appear on the shell radiating outwards. The shell is spiked and seems like someone has handcrafted a design on it.
  • The plastron of the wood turtles is yellow with dark spots.
  • The skin is dark and plain from the top view and from the bottom view a vibrant red and orange color can be observed.
  • The pectoral scute of these turtles is squarish.

Mud Turtle (Kinosternon)

  • The mud turtles have 11 scutes on both the carapace and the plastron.
  • The pectoral scute is triangular.
  • A foul odor comes off these turtles.

Bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii)

  • The bog turtles are small and grow somewhere between 4 to 5 inches.
  • These turtles have yellow, red, or orange patches on each side of the head.
  • The shell is bright and mahogany colored.
  • The top shell is doomed and rectangular. It gets narrower towards the head and wider towards the tail.

Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia)

  • The chicken turtles can stretch their heads and legs longer than their plastron.
  • The front legs have a solid yellow bar and there is a vertical black or yellow line present across the rump.
  • The carapace is egg shaped with a yellow net-like pattern.

How To Identify Sea Turtle?

Sea turtles do not come to the land too often. These are usually big and their front limbs are shaped like flippers. It means if you notice a turtle having flippers instead of webbed legs, then it is a sea turtle. Now look for other physical characteristics to find out the exact species of that sea turtle.

Right now, there are 7 sea turtle species alive in the world. Among them, 6 species are more common. Such as,

  1. Leatherback sea turtle
  2. Loggerhead sea turtle
  3. Hawksbill sea turtle
  4. Green sea turtle
  5. Olive Ridley sea turtle
  6. Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle

Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)

  • Leathery shell without any scutes
  • The shell is black with tiny white spots
  • The shell has 5 to 7 ridges running along the back

Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)

  • Bony shell with large sized scutes
  • The carapace is slightly heart-shaped
  • The first vertebral scute is squarish
  • Each side of the caracape has 5 pleural scutes
  • The top shell has 5 central shells running down
  • The carapace size is longer than the wide 
  • There is a large ovoid plate on the turtle’s dorsum or top of the blocklike head
  • There are two pairs of prefrontal scales between the turtle’s eyes
  • The plastron is pale yellow and the carapace can be white to reddish brown depending on the age.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)

  • Hawksbill sea turtle is one of the smallest sea turtles and ranges between 2 to 3 feet.
  • These turtles have bony shells and the first vertebral scute is triangular shaped.
  • The bony shells do not have ridges. Also, the scutes are large and overlap one another.
  • The shell has four costal scutes per side. 
  • The Hawksbill sea turtles have a narrow, pointed face with two pairs of prefrontal scales on the head.
  • The jaw of this species is not serrated.

Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)

  • The shell color of a green sea turtle is kind of a mix. The shade can be yellow-green to dark green depending on the age.
  • The first vertebra of the bony shell is triangular.
  • This species has four pairs of costal scutes and one pair of prefrontal scales between the eyes.
  • These turtles are round faced and own oval shaped smooth shells.

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea)

  • The Olive Ridley sea turtle is the smallest sea turtle on earth.
  • These turtles have smooth and olive color heart shaped shells.
  • The carapace is very doomed.
  • The hard carapace has 5 or more pairs of costal scutes on it.
  • The scute right behind the head is square shaped.

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii)

  • The head of a Kemp’s Ridley turtle is triangular shaped and the beak is slightly hooked.
  • The first vertebral scute is squarish. 
  • The bony shell has 5 or more pleural scutes per side.
  • Four of five inframarginal scutes are present.
  • In the bridge scutes have pores.
  • The shell of the adult Kemp’s Ridley is grayish-green on the carapace and pale yellowish on the plastron. The babies are dark colored on both sides.

How To Identify Terrestrial Turtles?

By terrestrial, I am indicating to the box turtles. They live on land and do not go to water if it is not necessary. This species can draw all their legs and neck into the shell and box up. This is why they are called box turtles.

The box turtles have several subspecies and some of them are quite popular. Such as,

Eastern box turtle (Terrapene Carolina Carolina):

These turtles have a concave shell. The carapace is brown with radiating yellow, orange, or red markings radiating from each scute. The plastron is dark brown and hinged. Their eyes are kind of reddish. Also, the Eastern box turtles have sharp horned beaks.

Florida box turtle (Terrapene Carolina bauri):

The black dark carapace has yellow stripes just like the Eastern box turtle. The plastron is cream colored with brown lines and relatively plain. These turtles have thick yellow lines on their heads.

Three toed box turtle (Terrapene Carolina triunguis):

The three toes on the back feet is the identifying characteristic of these turtles. Their shells are olive or brown with vague markings and the beaks are colorful.

How To Identify A Tortoise?

I know turtles and tortoises almost look the same. For a newbie, it can be hard to tell any difference. With a closer inspection, you can easily determine the family.

A tortoise has a wider and flat toe, which helps them walk on the land. Their legs are short and thick. When it comes to the shell, the tortoises have more rounded and domed shells. Like the turtles, their shell and skin color can vary from gray to brown with the yellow and green shades.

Conclusion

Determining the species of a turtle is a fun activity. To identify a turtle, you need to be close to it and inspect the creature properly. However, during the observation, handle the turtles with care and do not harm them.

Muntaseer Rahman

I have been keeping turtles as a pet for many years now. I’ve fallen in love with these cute pets from the moment I saw them. That’s why I am writing articles to share my turtle keeping knowledge with you.

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