Common Musk Turtle: Ultimate Guide

Common Musk Turtles are some of the most interesting and unique turtles and are a popular choice because of their size and fairly simple care routine.

They are an aquatic turtle, that are most popular in Eastern North America, and can grow to a size of around 5 inches.

Their nickname is not a very friendly one, but they are sometimes referred to as Stinkpots because they are able to release a foul odor if they feel threatened, and the strength of this musk can be very powerful and repugnant, enough to make predators think twice before approaching, and certainly enough to cause most humans to reconsider if they want one as a pet.

They aren’t very large but are quite territorial and they live for a very long time which makes them a difficult commitment not suited to everyone, particularly those with young children.

In this article, we’re going to look at some more specifics about these turtles if you’re interested in owning them or just curious about the species, and we’re going to look at everything from temperament, to their life cycle, diet and care so that if you’re won over by these crotchety but unique creatures, you can do so fully armed with the knowledge you need to look after them well.

Male vs. Female

Distinguishing musk turtles can be difficult if you don’t know what to look for, however, there are a few key features and characteristics that make the different sexes quite distinguishable if you know what to look for.

The first thing to keep an eye out for is the rough scales on the inside of the hind legs. These are used to hold the female during breeding, and females don’t have these rough patches on their legs.

Another sign is the amount of skin between the scutes (plates) on the male turtle’s plastron, which is the underside of the carapace. Male turtles have more skin between these plates than females.

Finally, the tail is another easy giveaway, as the male turtles have longer and thicker tails than females and have a spike at the tip which females don’t have.

Finally, male turtles typically have larger heads than females.


Common musk turtles are a fairly small species of turtle that are native to southeastern Canada and the Eastern US.

Their small size and their similarities with other turtles can make identification difficult, but there are some giveaway signs that you’re dealing with a musk turtle.

They can reach a length of between 3 or 5 inches, and as mentioned above, males tend to be a little bigger than females in general.

The shells can vary in color but are usually dark, coming in shades of black grey, and brown. They can also have a pair of colored stripes running from their nose across the sides of their neck, and these are usually yellow or green in color. The stripes are most visible on young turtles and can become less visible with age.

Young turtles also tend to have domed shells but this tends to flatten out as they progress in age.

Another tell-tale sign you’re dealing with a musk turtle can be the foul smell they secrete if they feel threatened or anxious, however, some other species of turtle are capable of this such as the Eastern Mud Turtle and Mississippi Mud Turtle.

As a Pet

While musk turtles look very cute because of their small size and relatively relaxed way of life, they can get defensive and have many ways to fight back if they feel anxious. They are not unknown to nip at fingers and have a deceptively powerful bite thanks to their beaks.

As with some other turtles, they are not very keen on being handled, and much prefer spending their time in the water, where they tend to stay in shallow areas as they aren’t very good swimmers.

They are a nocturnal species, and will often be much more animated at night than in the daytime, which is rare for reptiles who typically like to bask in the sunshine.

They can bite and scratch with their claws and won’t hide any feelings of fear or discomfort, and despite being small can actually be quite aggressive, and their rather long necks are flexible enough to make it easy for them to latch onto exposed skin or fingers.

Some say picking them up towards the rear of the shell makes these turtles more comfortable and less likely to become agitated, and this may also be safer as it keeps your hands out of harm’s way.

There is the risk, as with most turtles, that they can carry salmonella which means you should always wash your hands after handling them, and it makes them unsuitable for pet owners with children, however, if you do have turtles and children, its important to supervise interactions for everyone’s safety and to prevent children from putting their hands in their mouth or eyes after having touched the turtle.


The lifespan of these turtles is thought to be 30 years in the wild and can be more than this if well looked after in captivity, some say they can live up to 50 years which makes them a very long-term companion and a big commitment.

If this seems like a long time and you’re unsure you can take on such a long-term pet, it’s best to look at other options for the benefit of the animal and the owner.


They of course have their famous defensive odor, however, they have other interesting traits such as tentacle-like sensory extensions known as barbels on their chins and throats. They also have a small hinge on their lower shell which they can use to almost totally close the shell for protection from predators.

Breeding Season

The breeding season for the Common Musk Turtle extends from March, through April and nesting typically occurs in July. Individual females are capable of depositing several clutches of egg and reach maturity at around the age of 4 or 5 years.


The eggs are laid in a variety of places, but the preferred nest is usually buried beneath loamy soil. The incubation period is usually 60 to 85 days and females will sometimes lay several clutches of eggs, with a clutch ranging from 1 to 9 eggs.

Growth Rate

These turtles aren’t very large and are quite slow to grow, typically doubling in size around 10 months after hatching, reaching a maximum size of 5 to 6 inches. Their growth rate also declines as they age, meaning they eventually become fixed in size. Their size also depends a lot on how well they are looked after, how much they are fed, and how good quality their feed is.

Life Cycle

They commonly inhabit rivers and streams as well as reservoirs associated with rivers. They prefer slow-moving and shallow water best, and rivers with muddy bottoms and plenty of plant life available around them. They are less common in ponds or lakes but may be found in any that have any of the slow-moving streams and systems mentioned.

Males mature sexually in 3 years which is quite quick compared to other species, however, females can take between 4 and 7 years to fully mature.

Mating usually occurs underwater and the breeding season is said to start in March and has been known to last until the fall. Females will leave the water only to nest and will do this up to three times during the peak of summer where incubation is easiest.

Nests are usually nug near the waterline, often using leaves and logs as cover and camouflage. Hatchlings will usually emerge in September or October.


The exact population of this species isn’t known but their conversation status is listed as least concern, meaning they are unlikely to be under any threat of extinction in the immediate future and are quite abundant.


Their diet consists mainly of aquatic foods they come across, from insects to vegetation however they can be fed pellets in captivity as well as dried food options.


Predators of this species include Racoons (who look for the eggs), skunks, wading birds, foxes, large fish, bullfrogs, snapping turtles, water snakes, and even alligators, meaning there are a lot of things the musk turtle has to defend itself against and probably explains its extensive defensive instincts.

Roaming Range

Their main regions extend from southeastern Canada to the whole of the Eastern US.


Common health problems for the musk turtle include; Hypovitaminosis A (vitamin A deficiency), infectious diseases, and even parasites. These issues can be avoided with good care such as regularly cleaned water, a balanced diet, and worming if signs of lethargy, weight loss, or diarrhea occur.

Eye Color

The eye color of these turtles tends to be dark, ranging from black to brown.


If and when temperatures drop low enough in the wild, musk turtles will hibernate, however, they don’t need to in captivity if their conditions remain stable and comfortable. You can induce hibernation by carefully controlling temperatures if you want them to do so though.

Can they Swim?

Yes, although they aren’t particularly confident despite being fully aquatic turtles!


Musk turtles are an aquatic species and as such will require a suitably sized tank to allow them to swim around easily and comfortably. Unlike some breeds, however, they do not need deep water as they aren’t gifted swimmers, and don’t require gravel or a bottom substrate to line the base of their tank.

They do need quite a bit of care, and there are various health issues that can occur from dirty water, incorrect lighting, and inappropriate diet. Some of these issues are flaky shells, shell deformities, and even shell rot.

They can also be susceptible to ear infections, metabolic bone diseases, and intestinal parasites. Keeping them well looked after is usually enough to stop most of these issues, however.


Mud turtles can cost between 50 to 100 dollars however the main cost is the equipment needed to keep them comfortable and well looked after.

Fun Facts

Unlike other aquatic turtles, the musk turtle walks on the bottom of the stream river instead of swimming!