Arizona is home to several species of turtles, including the spiny softshell, western pond turtle, and Sonoran mud turtle. These shelled creatures can be found in various habitats throughout the state, from the Sonoran Desert to the high elevations of the Mogollon Rim. Despite facing threats such as habitat loss and pollution, these ancient reptiles have managed to thrive in Arizona’s unique ecosystem and continue to captivate both locals and visitors alike.
This article discussed 10 turtles you might be lucky enough to see in the state of Arizona.
10 Turtles in Arizona
1. Western Painted Turtle
Scientific Name: Chrysemys picta bellii
The Western painted turtle is found throughout much of the Western United States, including Arizona. They are indigenous to Northeastern Arizona in the Lyman Lake area but have now spread to canals and other water sources around Pheonix, Tucson, and Cottonwood. This species is olive green with bright red and yellow markings on its shell, especially along the bottom.
They have yellow stripes along their heads and yellowish to white stripes along their legs. They are most active during mating season, which is between March and October, during which time the females can lay up to four sets of eggs called clutches.
2. Desert Box Turtle
Scientific Name: Terrapene ornata luteola
The desert box turtle is found in the Southwestern US and Mexico. This species is relatively small, with adults reaching a shell length of between 4-6 inches. They have a distinctive, domed shell, usually light brown or yellowish with dark blotches.
The head and legs are also brown or yellowish. The males usually have bright red eyes and green heads, while the females have brown or black eyes and heads. The desert box turtle is a terrestrial species, meaning it spends most of its time on land, unlike aquatic turtle species.
These creatures can live an average of 32 years in the wild.
3. Sonoran Mud Turtle
Scientific Name: Kinosternon sonoriense
The Sonoran mud turtle has a distinctive, flattened, oval-shaped shell, typically brown or black, with yellow or orange markings. This aquatic turtle species has front and back hinges on its shell that allows them to close its shell up tightly. Adult Sonoran mud turtles grow up to 5.2 inches in length.
However, they start life much smaller – only slightly larger than a peanut M&M. The Sonoran mud turtle is native to the Sonora, Mexico region but can be found in Quitobaquito Springs and Pond on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, the only place in the US these turtles can be found.
4. Arizona Mud Turtle
Scientific Name: Kinosternon arizonense
The Arizona mud turtle has a small, dome-shaped shell that is flatter on top and olive, brown, or yellow-brown in color. This small turtle species grows between 3 and 6 inches in length.
The Arizona mud turtle is not found throughout the entire state but can be found in extreme south-central Arizona. This aquatic turtle is carnivorous, feeding on toads, tadpoles, fish, and invertebrates.
5. Yellow Mud Turtle
Scientific Name: Kinosternon flavescens
The yellow mud turtle is a small aquatic turtle species found in southeastern Arizona. Adult yellow mud turtles grow up to 6.5 inches long. Like the Arizona mud turtle, the yellow mud turtle has a dome-shaped shell that is flatter on top.
The top of the shell is olive-brown to yellow-brown, and the underbelly is yellow. This species is similar in appearance to the Sonora mud turtle, but you can tell the difference by looking at the throat and sides of the face. They are plain yellow or cream in color and lack the reticulations that the Sonora mud turtle has.
6. Sonoran Desert Tortoise
Scientific Name: Gopherus morafkai
The Sonoran desert tortoise is terrestrial turtle species found in the Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, including Arizona. These large turtles are adapted to the arid and semi-arid habitats of the Sonoran Desert, including rocky slopes and desert grasslands. They prefer areas with plenty of vegetation for food and cover to cool off when needed.
The Sonoran Desert Tortoise is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and populations are declining due to habitat loss, disease, and predation by non-native species. In Arizona, experts are studying the Sonoran desert tortoise’s behavior and breeding patterns to help push conservation efforts along.
7. Agassiz’s Desert Tortoise
Scientific Name: Gopherus agassizii
Agassiz’s desert tortoise can be found in northwestern Arizona. This species is well adapted to the hot and dry desert environment and can live for over 50 years in the wild. Agassiz’s Desert Tortoise is a herbivore that feeds on various desert plants, including cacti, shrubs, and grasses.
These terrestrial creatures have shells that can grow up to 15 inches long. Like other tortoises, they have thick, short, rounded legs resembling an elephant. They use their front legs to dig burrows to shelter from the desert heat.
8. Spiny Softshell Turtle
Scientific Name: Apalone spinifera
The spiny softshell turtle is a freshwater turtle species found in Arizona. They are one of North America’s largest freshwater turtle species, with adult shells measuring up to 19 inches long. This turtle is named for its soft, rubbery shell, which features small, pointy bumps along the front edge.
Spiny softshell turtles live in rivers and other bodies of water with sandy or muddy bottoms, and they can often be found basking on rocks or logs along the water’s edge. These turtles are carnivorous, feeding on a variety of prey such as fish, insects, and crustaceans.
9. Snapping Turtle
Scientific Name: Chelydra serpentina
While not native to Arizona, the snapping turtle has been introduced to lakes and canals around the Phoenix area. Snapping turtles are large, growing up to 19 inches in length. They are characterized by their large heads with sharp, hooked jaws.
These aquatic turtles have olive to dark brown shells and long, spiked tails. They often blend in with their surroundings because their shells are often covered with algae and mud.
10. Pond Slider
Scientific Name: Trachemys scripta
This aquatic turtle is medium-sized, with a shell reaching up to 14″ in length. The pond slider’s shell is slightly keeled and sits low on the turtle’s back, and the head is marked with a distinctive red patch on each side. The limbs and head are a dark olive-gray with cream and yellow stripes, and a dark horizontal bar runs through the middle of each eye.
The lower section of the shell, known as the plastron, displays many prominent dark patches against a yellow backdrop, while the back edge of the upper shell, or carapace, is jagged. Similar to various turtle varieties, the females are bigger than the males.