The eastern musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), or stinkpot, is native to much of eastern North America and is one of the smallest turtles in the world, averaging only 2–5 inches in length. It is grayish brown with yellow stripes on its neck, a short tail, and a dome-like shell.
The stinkpot gets its name from the foul odor it releases when it feels threatened by predators (or is being handled by a pesky biologist!). It may be confused with young snapping turtles due to its readiness to bite when handled; however, unlike hatchling snapping turtles, hatchling stinkpots will willingly bite freshly hatched from the egg.
Being small, the stinkpot’s musk and feisty personality help deter any predators.
The stinkpot is a weak swimmer and spends most of its time walking along the bottoms of lakes or slow-moving rivers. It is poorly adapted to life in the swift main channel, but can be found in our calmer backwaters and shallow marshes or wetland areas.
Spending most of its time in the water, the stinkpot emerges only during nesting season and is rarely seen basking, unlike the more commonly seen red-eared sliders or western painted turtles. When a stinkpot does bask, it often climbs into trees overhanging the water (up to 7 feet above the water surface!) and has been known to drop onto boats passing underneath.
The stinkpot’s presence can be an indicator of good quality wetland habitat, as it prefers shallow wetland habitats.
The stinkpot nests in spring, laying 2–9 eggs in a shallow burrow or in debris along the shoreline. Its tiny hatchlings—an inch or less in length—emerge in fall and immediately return to the water. Like many aquatic turtles, hatchling and young turtles are mostly carnivorous, eating invertebrates and fish (mostly dead), but shift to a more herbivorous diet as they grow older.
Because of its small size, the stinkpot makes a more suitable pet than other turtles and is often bred in captivity for this purpose. However, be prepared for the long haul. Like most turtles, the stinkpot is long-lived, with some captive individuals reaching over 50 years of age!