Apalone spinifera / Spiney softshell turtle- Care

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Specification Description
Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Suborder: Cryptodira
Family: Trionychidae
Subfamily: Trionychinae
Scientific name: Apalone spinifera
English name: Spiny softshell turtle
Dieet: Carnivoor
Distribution: U.S.
Lifestyle: Aquatic
Reproduction: oviparous / egglaying
Status: Stabile
Cites: non

Apalone spinifera, (Le Sueur, 1827)

Apalone spinifera, especially males are in comparison to the Apalone ferox a better option for most keepers. Especially the males do not reach the adult sizes other softshell turtles will, like the Apalone ferox. They also are a bit less territorial towards other turtles. Making it easier to keep them in a big pond compared to before mentioned.

Subspecies:  In total there are six recognized subspecies. Which subspecies are in captivity and whether this are "pure" animals is not entirely known. This is because a large part of the Apalone spinifera kept in our hobby are derived from so-called turtle 'farms' which export large numbers of young Trionychidae to Europe in order to be sold there. The species that seems to be mostly kept is the Eastern spiny softshell turtle - Apalone spinifera spinifera. The recognized subspecies are: Apalone spinifera aspera, Apalone spinifera hartwegi, Apalone spinifera emoryi, Apalone spinifera


Physical Characteristics:  This species is easily recognized by their leathery flexible shell. On the front of the shell, above the forelimbs that have of a number of small spines. Young animals have a spotted pattern on the shell and a light plastron. Young animals also have a light line along the border of the shell which they often lose when they get older. They have a pointed snout which makes it possible for the animals to breath new air without having to be on the surface of the water. Preventing they get spotted by predator or prey. Their eyes are placed on top of the head and they have a very good view. Over the length of the head they have a pattern of dark lines. A light stripe runs from their eye into their necks. Adult animals often lose the contrast and beautiful patterns in the face and spots on the shield compared to the young. These are a more basic brown or grey in color. Their body color is usually grey with small spots. The legs are strong and have webbed feet. Males reach an average length of 20cm and are thus considerably smaller than the females. Females can grow much larger with an average length of 44cm or even 50cm depending on the subspecies. Due to their wide distribution, there may be a difference in phenotype and size. Softshell turtles have specially adapted 'anal' glands able to attract oxygen from the water. This allows the animals to stay long under water to hide and hunt.


Behavior:  Apalone spinifera are diurnal turtles. They are very active and good swimmers. The only reason for these animals to get out of the water is to lay eggs and sunbathe. They like to sunbathe on sand banks or in shallow waters so when disturbed they can quickly jump into the water to hide. They are generally active hunters but can also act as an sit-and-wait predator. Softshell turtles dig and hide themselves in the sandy bottoms of rivers and lakes where they live. Unless they stick out their head, they are completely untraceable. They do this to hide overnight or to hunt. They can remain under water and then hide under a layer of sand or mud. Waiting until a prey animal comes along. Which they catch by extending their long necks quickly and so to catch the prey, such as a fish.


Natural origin and habitat:  This is one of the most common Trionychidae in America and even occurs south of Canada. They cover a big part of the United States to Mexico. They are located in lakes, rivers and streams. Open water with a moderate current seems to be preferable. Sometimes they can be found basking on the banks, but always close to the water. Their soft shield offer less resistance in the water and this makes them good and fast swimmers.


Apalone spinifera aspera, Occurs in North Carolina to Alabama and the northern tip of Florida.

Apalone spinifera emoryi, can be found in Texas. Dr. Rio Grande River to the Pecos River drainage and south of the Rio purification Taumalipas. Southwestern New Mexico, Southwestern Utah seeking the Gulf of Mexico.

Apalone spinifera guadalupensis, south central Texas and the Colorado River system.

Apalone spinifera hartwegi, spreads through Minnesota and Arkansas west of Wyoming. Easter Colorado, north-eastern New Mexico and you will find a large population in Montana in the Missouri River delta.

Apalone spinifera pallida, is found in western Louisiana to southern Oklahoma and the far north and east Texas.

Apalone spinifera spinifera. The nominate occurs in the most north eastern part of the distribution of this species. Including southern Canada around the Ottawa River. Western New York to the Tennessee River south from Wisconsin.


Housing:  The Apalone spinifera is a very active swimmer and therefor needs a lot of space to do so. Keep this in mind when it comes to the size of the aquarium or pond. Young animals can be raised in a modified aquarium of 100x40x30cm or for example in a Zoomed Turtle Tub. Young animals are already extremely good swimmers so the water level may be significantly higher compared to their shell length. To facilitate the young to reach the surface, you can use wood as something to climb to the surface. For these young animals a piece of bark, wood or turtle dock can be enough to function as a basking area.

Adults need a spacious setup, certainly the big females. Think of at least 10x their carapace length long and 4x their carapace length wide. The water level should be at least 2x their carapace length deep and preferably a lot deeper. This makes this species (at least the females) for many enthusiasts with limited space unsuitable. If you would like a similar kind of turtle that remains smaller and therefore require less space the Asian softshell species Pelodiscus sinensis is a very good option. These get on average about 20cm so need a considerable smaller setup.

Decoration:  A thick layer of sand is a must for this species because they like to hide in it. Further decoration can be kept spars. Only consisting of a few branches or roots to reach the surface and create visual barriers. They appreciate emerged hiding spaces for instance the Zoomed turtlelog for young animals and big half pots or pipes for adults. Always offer a place where they can easily climb out of the water to completely dry and bask. This may be a floating platform or a separate part with sand, which is also needed for a female to lay her eggs.

Heating and lighting:  As long as there is a proper hot spot of 30-35C to bask. It is often not needed to add any additional heating to the aquarium for these turtles. The heating lamps will increase the air temperature and help for a difference in the day and night temperatures. UV is required. In the night this species often does not have to be heated and can be allowed to cool up till 12-15C. Depending on the climate where you live. This species could be kept outside during the spring and summer. In this case make sure they cannot in any way get out of the enclosure and keep in mind turtles can be great climbers. Always use a deep pond. With plenty of hides and options to get into the shade to prevent the possibility of overheating.

Water and Filtration:  proper and high water quality is a must! Because of their soft shell this species is more vulnerable to poor quality water compared to for instance the cooters etc. with their hard shell. The shell of a softshell turtles can be damaged by sharp decoration, bites etc. And these are places where bacteria and fungi can grow and cause problems. So a good filtration and lots of water movement (aeration) is a must. Make sure there is plenty of commotion and movement on the surface to oxygenate the water. Use an external filter with if possible a UVC filter. Stagnant water in combination with turtles and their diet means bacterial growth and subsequent health problems. It may be that only the pump in a large pond does not ensure the adequate flow. Then use flow pumps or air bubblers in order to create more movement in the water. To ensure that your large external filter requires less cleaning and work harder, it is wise to use a pre-filter. This filter prevents the big parts of waste like non eaten food and faeces to directly enter the external filter. This eliminates the need to clean your external filter too often. Making sure the biological use stays maintained. This will also be extending the lifespan of your pomp as it has to work less. A pre-filter can simply consist of a round sponge that comes to the inflow tube of your filter. Replace 10% to 50% of the water weekly to biweekly. Live plants help to maintain good water quality. Think of waterweed, guppygrass, duckweed etc. As this active turtles will destroy the roots of most plants it is best to use floating plants or plants that don’t need to be sitting in a substrate.

Most softshell turtles. Including the spiny softshell turtles can be very territorial and even aggressive towards turtles of the same and other species. Although we have to mention that we have observed successful combinations of this species (males) with other active turtle species from a similar habitat. So we would advise to keep this species separate and only introduce a mate during the breeding season. You could try to combine them with big river cooters (Trachemys, Pseudemys). But always keep a close eye on the interaction between the turtles. Softshell turtles that act territorial will bite the other turtles in their limbs and shell and will chase them down a lot.


Hibernation / Brumation:  In regard to the northern distribution of the species they naturally hibernate. Depending on the region this can last from October to April. During this time the animals remain in the bottom of the river. Hidden among the sand or mud at the bottom. This happens only in oxygen-rich water. During this period, the animals get the needed oxygen through their glands in the anal regions and shell.


Diet:  This softshell turtle is primarily carnivorous. They feed on all kinds of crustaceans, insects, fish, amphibians, their larvae etc. Large animals could also eat small mammals and waterfowl. Both catching them themselves or as carrion.

Young animals can grow on a diverse diet of shrimp (not dried), worms (pieces of) fish, insects like crickets and mealworms, bloodworms and the like. Adult animals eat large worms and fish as well as shrimp, lobster, mussels and chunks of chicken, snails, etc. Offering a whole prey is always preferred over parts and give a well varied diet. Dried gammarus crustaceans add nothing to a healthy diet. This species also learns to eat the pellet foods made by different manufacturers. Feed young animals daily, sub-adult and adult animals once every 2 to 3 days. Don’t overfeed, it is better for them to have a steady slow growth then growing too fast and to fat. When the animals mature they may add some sorts of greens to their diet, mostly consisting of waterplants.

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