North Carolina is home to a diverse array of turtle species that inhabit various habitats, including freshwater rivers and streams, ponds, lakes, and even the ocean. The state’s abundant waterways provide a suitable environment for a wide range of turtles. Turtles in North Carolina play a critical role in maintaining the state’s ecological balance, and their habitats are essential for preserving biodiversity.
In this article, we’ll look at a list of some of the most common turtle species found in North Carolina, and learn some interesting facts about each turtle’s behaviors and preferred habitats.
13 Turtles in North Carolina
As mentioned, North Carolina is home to a wide range of turtles. The following list looks at 13 different types of turtles that thrive in various habitats throughout the state. Some of these species include the Eastern Box Turtle, Snapping Turtle, Painted Turtle, and Diamondback (or diamond-backed) Terrapin, among others.
1. Chicken Turtle
- Scientific name: Deirochelys reticularia
- Length: 6 – 9 inches
The chicken turtle is one of the semiaquatic turtles that you can find in North Carolina. These species are mainly found in the Piedmont and coastal plain areas. These creatures favor shallow, still water, like that found in ponds, lakes, ditches, and Carolina bays.
Chicken turtles leave the water in late September to find a suitable hibernation site, typically in the mud and vegetation along the water’s edge.
2. Spotted turtle
- Scientific name: Clemmys guttata
- Length: 3.5 – 5 inches
- Weight: ½ to ¾ pounds
The Spotted Turtle is a type of freshwater turtle that inhabits North Carolina, specifically the eastern parts of the state. They usually inhabit shallow, slow-moving bodies of water that have aquatic vegetation, such as marshes, wet pastures, Carolina bays, ditches, canals, temporary pools, and small streams.
These species can be identified by their dark-colored shells that have yellow spots, which can number up to a hundred in some cases.
3. Loggerhead sea turtle
- Scientific name: Caretta caretta
- Length: 29.3 – 43.7 inches
- Weight: 170 – 500 lbs
The Loggerhead Sea Turtle is a type of marine turtle that’s frequently spotted in the coastal and inshore waters of North Carolina. The species also nest in this state. Loggerhead turtles are carnivorous, feeding on jellyfish, crabs, and other marine animals, crushing the hard shells of their prey with their powerful jaws.
Their shell is typically reddish-brown and heart-shaped, making them easily distinguished from other sea turtles.
4. Kemp’s ridley sea turtle
- Scientific name: Lepidochelys kempii
- Length: 27 – 32 inches
- Weight: 75 – 100 pounds
The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is a fascinating marine reptile that can be found in North Carolina. This small sea turtle is known for its olive-gray-colored shell and triangular-shaped head.
Unlike other turtle species, Kemp’s ridleys are exclusively sea turtles and can be found in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic seaboard.
North Carolina is also among the nesting sites of this species. These turtles are known for their unique behavior of nesting in large groups, called “arribadas“, where hundreds of females come ashore to lay their eggs at the same time.
5. Diamond-backed terrapin
- Scientific name: Malaclemys terrapin
- Length: 6 – 9 inches
- Weight: up to 1.5 pounds
The Diamond-backed terrapin is a unique turtle species found from the northern shore of Cape Cod south to Cape Hatteras of North Carolina. These turtles are known for their diamond-shaped scutes, which give them their name, and their beautiful shell coloration, which ranges from black to grayish-brown.
They can live in salt and freshwater, and feed on various prey, including crabs, snails, and small fish.
6. Yellow-bellied slider
- Scientific name: Trachemys scripta scripta
- Length: 5-8 inches
- Weight: 0.3 – 113 oz
The Yellow-bellied sliders are frequently seen in the freshwater bodies of North Carolina, such as lakes, ponds, and rivers. The distinctive yellow stripes on these turtles’ brown and black shells are what set them apart from other species.
Yellow patches can also be found on their neck and legs, while their lower shell is predominantly yellow with black spots on the edges. Yellow-bellied sliders are a commonly kept pet and have been exported to numerous countries worldwide.
7. Gulf Coast spiny softshell
- Scientific name: Apalone spinifera aspera
- Length: 24 – 48 cm
The Gulf Coast spiny softshell turtle is a species of freshwater turtle that can be found in the rivers and streams of North Carolina. The turtles have flattened, soft shells with spiny projections that aid in their camouflage in their sandy riverbed homes.
The Gulf Coast spiny softshell turtles have a carnivorous diet that includes fish, insects, and other aquatic invertebrates. They’re also recognized for their distinctive habit of burying themselves in sand or mud, with only their eyes and snout visible above the water.
8. Eastern spiny softshell
- Scientific name: Apalone spinifera spinifera
- Length: up to 21 inches
- Weight: up to 25 pounds
A fascinating freshwater turtle species that can be found in North Carolina is the Eastern spiny softshell turtle. Although they have some similarities with their subspecies, the Gulf Coast spiny softshell turtle, they also exhibit distinct characteristics and behaviors.
These turtles share flattened and spiny shells, but Eastern spiny softshell turtles don’t have the two or more black lines that run along the back edge of the shell. Additionally, they lack the circular markings that are present in Gulf Coast species.
9. Leatherback sea turtle
- Scientific name: Dermochelys coriacea
- Length: 1.8 – 2.2 m
- Weight: 250 – 700 kg
The Leatherback sea turtle is a type of turtle that migrates and is commonly found in the coastal waters of North Carolina. They’re known to nest in Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, and Bald Head Island.
These turtles have the most distinctive, leathery shells of any living sea turtle and are the largest of all sea turtle species. Their carapace isn’t hard and bony like other sea turtles, instead, it’s flexible, rubbery, and dark-colored. Their main source of food is jellyfish and other invertebrates with soft bodies.
10. Atlantic hawksbill sea turtle
- Scientific name: Eretmochelys imbricata imbricata
- Length: 2 – 3 ft
- Weight: 100-150 pounds
The Atlantic hawksbill sea turtle is a marine reptile that inhabits the open oceans of North Carolina. These turtles have a unique, narrow head with a sharp beak that allows them to feed on sponges and other invertebrates.
They have a beautiful shell with a pattern of overlapping scales and color variations ranging from brown to yellow-orange. Hawksbill turtles are known for their ability to navigate long distances to return to their birthplace for nesting.
11. Eastern musk turtle
- Scientific name: Sternotherus odoratus
- Length: 2 – 4.5 inches
- Weight: 1 – 2 pounds
The Eastern musk turtle, also known as the stinkpot turtle, is a species of freshwater turtle that can be found in the rivers, streams, and wetlands of North Carolina. These small turtles have dark shells that are ridged on the edges and smooth all over.
The name “musk turtle” comes from these reptiles emitting a pungent odor when they feel threatened. This defense mechanism helps them avoid being eaten by other animals.
12. Eastern painted turtle
- Scientific name: Chrysemys picta picta
- Length: 4 – 6 inches
- Weight: 11 – 18 ounces
The Eastern painted turtle is one of the species that can be found in shallow bodies of water such as ponds, marshes, and slow-moving streams. These turtles have distinctive shells with distinct red markings on the edges, making them stand out from other species.
The yellow or orange stripes that run along their neck and legs are another characteristic that makes them easy to spot.
13. Bog turtle
- Scientific name: Glyptemys muhlenbergii
- Length: 3 – 3.5 inches
- Weight: 110 grams average
The Bog Turtle is a species of small freshwater turtle found in western North Carolina. They’re most commonly found in wet and marshy areas close to bogs and wetlands.
These turtles have dark shells with yellow or reddish hues and a bright orange or yellow patch on their heads, and they’re among the smallest turtles in North America.