Turtles are captivating reptiles, and their unique adaptations, such as their hard shells and longevity, have piqued human curiosity and prompted scientific investigation for centuries. These slow-moving reptiles have been around for millions of years and are found almost everywhere in the world, including the U.S. state of Tennessee. Due to their diverse range of habitats, a variety of turtles in Tennessee are able to thrive and live there.
This article will provide some insight into the world of turtles that can be found in the state of Tennessee.
15 Types of Turtles Found in Tennessee
In Tennessee, turtles can be found in various habitats, including aquatic, semi-aquatic, and terrestrial environments. Here are some common places and general habitats where you might find turtles in the state:
- Rivers/streams: Tennessee River, Cumberland River, and tributaries
- Ponds/lakes: Reelfoot Lake, Radnor Lake, Old Hickory Lake
- Wetlands/swamps: Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge, Chickasaw National Wildlife Refuge, Mississippi River wetlands
- Woodlands/forests: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee National Forest, Natchez Trace State Park
- Grasslands/meadows: Cedars of Lebanon State Park, Montgomery Bell State Park
- Urban areas: Public parks, residential neighborhoods with water features
- Tennessee Aquarium: Chattanooga
Remember that it’s important to observe turtles from a distance and not disturb their natural habitats. Also, never remove a wild turtle from its environment, as this can harm the local ecosystem and the turtle itself.
With all of that said, let’s look at 15 species of turtles you could come across in the state of Tennessee.
1. Snapping turtle
- Scientific name: Chelydra serpentina
- Length: 8 – 18 inches
- Weight: 10 – 35 pounds
The snapping turtle can be found in lakes, rivers, and streams all over the state of Tennessee. The shells of these species can be either brown or black and measure up to 18 inches in length and they’re known for their behavior that’s usually aggressive and their powerful jaws used for capturing prey.
They consume a wide range of creatures, such as fish, frogs, snakes, birds, and even other small mammals. In the wild, some snapping turtles can live up to 30 years. Snapping turtles need a lot of space and shouldn’t be handled due to their unpredictable behavior.
2. Alligator snapping turtle
- Scientific name: Macrochelys temminckii
- Length: 15 – 26 inches
- Weight: 155 – 175 pounds
The alligator snapping turtle is a species of large aquatic turtle that can be found in the western third of the state, with a few scattered records in central TN. They usually live in habitats with large and deep bodies of water, such as large rivers, deep sloughs, and lakes. These turtles have a distinctive look, characterized by a big head, strong jaws with a hooked beak, and a rough, ridged shell.
They’re known to be one of the heaviest freshwater turtles in North America and are considered the largest freshwater turtle species in North America, with some individuals weighing up to 211 pounds.
The turtle mostly eats meat, such as fish, insects, and crustaceans. Alligator snapping turtles can stay still under the mud for long periods of time, and they use this technique to wait for prey to come close enough for them to attack.
3. Eastern mud turtle
- Scientific name: Kinosternon subrubrum
- Length: 2.75-4 inches
- Weight: 10 – 35 pounds
The eastern mud turtle is a small species of reptile that lives all over Tennessee except in the upper Cumberland and Tennessee River drainages. They typically live in slow-moving bodies of water with lots of vegetation, such as ponds, backwaters of rivers, and streams.
These turtles have smooth and oval-shaped shells that are typically dark brown or black. Their lower shell is yellowish-brown with dark markings.
Although these animals don’t bask frequently, you can still observe them basking in the sun on logs or rocks. Eastern mud turtles also hibernate by burrowing into the mud.
4. Striped-necked musk turtle
- Scientific name: Sternotherus minor
- Length: 3 – 4 inches
- Weight: 1 – 2 pounds
The striped-necked musk turtle is the only species of loggerhead musk turtle that can be found in the state of Tennessee. Except for the Cumberland River drainage, you can find these small turtles east of the Tennessee River (western middle Tennessee portion), usually in ponds, rivers, and wetlands with many snags and fallen trees.
These turtles got their names from the distinctive dark stripes that are found on their necks. They’re also known for their ability to remain submerged for extended periods of time due to their capacity to absorb oxygen from the water through the lining of their mouths and throats.
5. Eastern musk turtle
- Scientific name: Sternotherus odoratus
- Length: 2 – 4.5 inches
- Weight: 1 – 2 pounds
The Eastern musk turtle, which is also called Stinkpot, gets its name from the pungent, musky smell it releases when it feels threatened or is handled. They’re relatively small turtles with an underside that’s light in color and a shell that ranges in color from light olive brown to black.
You can find them in a variety of aquatic habitats in Tennessee that have permanent bodies of water and shallow water, such as streams, rivers, and small ponds. These animals usually feed on small crayfish, minnows, insects, and sometimes even carrion.
6. Eastern painted turtle
- Scientific name: Chrysemys picta picta
- Length: 4 – 6 inches
- Weight: 11 – 18 ounces
The Eastern painted turtle is a common reptile species found in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee. They live in relatively shallow water, such as ponds, lakes, and ditches.
The name of these turtles comes from the red coloration that you can find on the plates of their smooth olive-to-black to black shells. You can also recognize them by the yellow stripes on their heads and chins. The Eastern painted turtle is an omnivore, and its diet consists of aquatic plants, snails, small fish, and frogs.
7. Southern painted turtle
- Scientific name: Chrysemys dorsalis
- Length: 4 – 6 inches
- Weight: 2 – 4 pounds
The Southern painted turtle is a type of aquatic turtle that can be found in the western Tennessee coastal plain. They live in various aquatic habitats like ponds, lakes, and slow-moving rivers that have soft, muddy bottoms and plenty of vegetation.
The turtles have a unique look, featuring an olive to black colored shell with red coloring on its plates. Recent studies have revealed that they’re a separate species, although they were previously classified as a subspecies of the painted turtle.
8. Bog turtle
- Scientific name: Glyptemys muhlenbergii
- Length: 3 – 3.5 inches
- Weight: 110 grams average
The Bog turtle is a small species of turtle that can be recognized by the orange, red, or yellowish patch on the side of its head behind the eye. They usually live in wet environments that have muddy bottoms, like bogs, wetlands, and swamps.
The average length of these animals is 3-3.5 inches, making them one of the smallest turtle species in the world. Bog turtles have an omnivorous diet consisting of insects, amphibians, and plants. Male turtles can be distinguished from females by their strongly concave plastron, whereas females have a flat plastron.
9. Northern map turtle
- Scientific name: Graptemys geographica
- Length: 3.5 – 10.75 inches
- Weight: 1.5 – 5.5 pounds
The Northern map turtle is one of several species of medium-sized freshwater turtles found in the Tennessee and Cumberland River drainages in central and eastern Tennessee. You can often spot them in lakes, rivers, sloughs, and large ponds, where they like to enjoy the sun on fallen trees or logs.
These turtles are so named because of the distinctive markings on their shells that resemble rivers or roads on a map. The Northern map turtle has an olive-green to brown carapace with yellowish lines on its dark green skin. These lines can be found on the head, neck, and limbs, and there is a noticeable yellow dot behind its eye.
10. Ouachita map turtle
- Scientific name: Graptemys ouachitensis
- Length: 3.5 – 10.25 inches
- Weight: no specific numbers, but males are much smaller than females
A species of freshwater reptile called the Ouachita map turtle can be found in the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers. It usually lives in large lakes and rivers. In spring, these species mate, and their hatchlings usually emerge in late summer or early fall.
The Ouachita map turtle’s carapace is typically olive-green to brown in color and features dark smudges on the plates. In addition to having a serrated back end, they have dark green heads, necks, and limbs with thin yellow lines. Male individuals of this species tend to consume more meat, whereas females tend to consume more plants.
11. False map turtle
- Scientific name: Graptemys pseudogeographica
- Length: 3.5 – 10.75 inches
- Weight: 2.5 – 4 pounds
The False map turtles get their name from the markings on their shell, which are similar to those of the Ouachita map turtle and Northern map turtle, but also have some distinct differences. This species displays yellow lines on its head, neck, and legs, as well as a yellow “L” mark behind its eye that faces backward.
Additionally, it has narrow yellow stripes on its neck that touch the edge of each eye. These turtles are commonly found in the state’s northwestern corner, specifically in the Mississippi River. They prefer to inhabit rivers that have slow currents and backwaters.
12. River cooter
- Scientific name: Pseudemys concinna
- Length: 9 – 12 inches
- Weight: 8 – 11 pounds
The river cooter is a type of freshwater turtle that you can find in all the major river systems across Tennessee. They usually live in large rivers and lakes and prefer wet habitats that have plenty of aquatic vegetation and rocky bottoms.
These animals are called so because they tend to live in big rivers. River cooters can be identified by the yellowish stripes on their head, neck, and chin, as well as the dark, donut-shaped markings beneath their marginal plates.
13. Eastern box turtle
- Scientific name: Terrapene carolina
- Length: 4.5 – 6 inches
- Weight: usually less than one pound
The Eastern box turtle is a species of turtle that lives on land and is typically found in moist open forests that are located near water and floodplains. Throughout Tennessee, they’re seen throughout the state. These turtles can pull their head, legs, and tail inside their shell and close them tightly as a defense mechanism.
The turtle’s carapace is dark brown or black and has yellow or orange markings. Its plastron is hinged, allowing it to close tightly for protection against predators.
14. Pond slider
- Scientific name: Trachemys scripta
- Length: 5 – 11.5 inches
- Weight: up to 7 pounds
The pond slider, also called the yellow-bellied slider, is commonly found in Tennessee’s slow-moving rivers, lakes, and ponds. They prefer areas with aquatic vegetation, muddy bottoms, and plenty of basking sites. You can spot them in the Tennessee River, particularly in the state’s southeast corner.
Pond sliders are called so because they have a defense mechanism of sliding quickly into the water when they sense danger. These animals usually eat plants, but they may also eat insects, snails, tadpoles, and fish from time to time.
15. Smooth softshell
- Scientific name: Apalone mutica
- Length: 4.5 – 14 inches
- Weight: up to 33 pounds
The smooth softshell is a species that can be found in the state, especially in the northern parts of Tennessee and Cumberland River drainages. The turtles are known for their fast swimming abilities and can often be spotted snorkeling by poking just the tip of their snout out of the water to breathe.
These turtles are called softshell turtles because of their distinct soft and leathery shell, which is different from the hard scutes present in other turtle species. Their diet consists of fish, insects, and amphibians as they’re carnivorous.