The common musk turtle, also known as the Eastern musk turtle or the stinkpot, is a popular choice as a pet because of their size and relative ease of care. They are an aquatic turtle that comes from eastern North America.
If they feel threatened, they can release a foul, musky odor, which is how they got their alternative name of stinkpot. They may be small, but these turtles can reach ripe old ages of 30 to 50 years old, and they can be feisty, too. They are not a commitment that should be taken on lightly.
Common Names: Common Musk Turtle, Eastern Musk Turtle, Stinkpot
Scientific Name: Sternotherus Odoratus
Adult Size: 3 to 5 inches
Life Expectancy: Up to and even over 50 years
Common Musk Turtle Behavior and Temperament
The common musk turtle, due to their small size, is one of the most popular of all the aquatic turtle species. You should not, however, underestimate the amount of care that they require. Male stinkpots have longer tails that have visible spikes making it easy to sex this species. They rarely grow to be more than five and a half inches.
They come with a brown, grey or black carapace (upper shell), which is highly domed in young turtles, but it flattens out as they grow older. They also have two very distinct yellow stripes that run from the nose to the neck, although, again, these can fade with age.
While they do spend most of their time in the water, they tend to stick to the shallows as they are not particularly strong swimmers. They are also naturally nocturnal and could be more active through the night.
They get their name from the fact that, if they feel threatened, they can emit a strong, repellant, foul-smelling odor from their scent glands. They are also known for being rather spunky and can scratch and bite if they feel uncomfortable. They have a long and flexible neck which also makes it easier to grab their target.
All turtles should be handled with care and respect. To ensure you are not at the end of a nasty nip, you should be especially careful if you have to handle the stinkpot. Picking them up towards the rear of their shell can help.
There is a risk that aquatic turtles can carry the Salmonella bacteria. You must wash your hands after handling them. If you have children, you will need to supervise interactions to ensure they are not tempted to put their hands in their mouth before washing.
The stinkpot is an aquatic turtle that is best observed rather than having lots of physical contact.
Housing the Common Musk Turtle
The stinkpot will need a suitable tank that will allow them to swim with ease. Unlike some aquatic breeds, they do not need deep water or a substrate (like gravel) on the base of the tank. This also makes the tank easier to clean. If you do want a more attractive looking tank, it will be okay to use a medium sized-gravel. The water depth should be shallow so that the turtle can touch the bottom of the tank and still stretch up to reach the surface without always having to paddle.
They do not need as big a tank as some of their larger species relatives. Generally, it is still recommended to have a tank designed to hold a minimum of 30 gallons for one turtle as they are an active species. If you plan to house a male and a female together, you will need to watch out for the male becoming too over-eager and harassing the female. If this is happening, you should be prepared to separate them. Two males should not be housed together.
While the stinkpot spends most of its time in the water, you should still ensure you provide suitable areas to allow them to come out of the water to bask and rest. They dehydrate quickly, so it is not so common for them to spend lengthy periods basking outside of water. Providing structures for basking and plants for support also gives additional enrichment and exploration opportunities.
A water filter compatible with shallow waters is needed to keep the turtle's habitat clean. Without it, you would have to empty the tank to clean it too regularly. Stinkpots, because of their high-protein diet, can be messier than some other turtle species, so a strong filter system is recommended.
Alongside an efficient, continually running filtration system, you should still thoroughly clean out the tank at least every few months, and sometimes sooner. You can purchase kits to test the water for cleanliness levels to ensure it does not get unsafe for your turtle to be in.
Whenever you are putting new water into the tank, you should ensure that this is dechlorinated. The chlorine from tap water can impact on the efficiency of the filter and the health of your turtle.
If you have dogs or cats, make sure that you have an appropriate cover for the tank to keep your turtle safe.
Although they are not prolific baskers, they should have a warm area to allow them the option, and the temperature in these areas should around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The water temperature should be kept at around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are using water heaters to maintain this temperature, be very careful to ensure that the water does not evaporate and expose the heater. This can result in overheating, and it can be dangerous for your turtle.
UVB-Lighting is recommended to ensure that your turtle is getting enough crucial vitamin D3 to help them metabolize calcium properly. Although this is often added to commercially available pellets, if they do not get enough through their diet, the lighting will ensure that they remain in better health. It is worth noting, however, that the common musk turtle is more capable of synthesizing vitamin D3 than other turtles.
Food and Water
In the wild, the common musk turtle would eat a wide variety of water fish and insects. They are primarily carnivorous, although they do sometimes eat certain algae. In captivity, providing a varied diet will help to ensure that they remain happy and healthy. Commercial turtle pellets fed alongside high-protein foods such as earthworms, crickets, fish and shrimp are a good choice. Some stinkpots may also enjoy grazing on leafy greens too, but don't be offended if they turn their nose up at them.
Common Health Problems
The common musk turtle is generally regarded as a healthy little species. As with all aquatic turtles, however, there are certain health conditions they could develop that it is worth being aware of. Some of these include:
Hypovitaminosis A: This is when your turtle does not receive enough vitamin A in their diet. It can result in swelling in the eyes and respiratory issues that can lead to further complications. This can be treated by providing a vitamin supplement and can be avoided by ensuring that your turtle is fed a balanced diet. If you find a pellet they enjoy, this will help to ensure they get a good balance.
Infectious Diseases are a relatively common problem in aquatic turtles and these can range in their severity. By ensuring that your turtle is residing in clean water, this can help to minimize the risk of developing a problem.
Parasites: It is not uncommon for even healthy aquatic turtles to host certain parasites in their system, like nematodes or flagellates. If their numbers become too great, or they pick up parasites like tapeworms from another host, this can impact on their health. You may see things like weight loss, lethargy or diarrhea. By organizing an annual fecal exam through an exotic specialist vet, this can help to ensure things are kept under control.
Choosing Your Common Musk Turtle
It is very important to make sure that you seek out a reputable breeder or rescue organization when looking to own a stinkpot turtle. Your turtle should be captive-bred to ensure the preservation of the wild populations.
In the United States, there is a law that prohibits sales of turtles with a carapace under 4 inches. This means you will not find a hatchling stinkpot through most breeders.
It is usually better to go to a small-scale specialist breeder rather than just a general pet store. Not only will a reputable specialist have more guarantees around how the turtle was sourced and raised, but also they will often provide much better specialist advice.
Why not consider adopting a common musk turtle in need of a new home? There are a number of rescues that re-home reptiles and amphibians and some specialist turtle rescue organizations. A good general place to start your search is via Petfinder.com.
Similar Species to the Common Musk Turtles
If you are interested in finding out about other aquatic turtles and their suitability for living in your home, you may wish to consider:
Or, you can check out our other aquatic turtle profiles to help you choose your next pet.
Pet Turtles: Cute But Commonly Contaminated with Salmonella. US Food & Drug Administration.
Disorders and Diseases of Reptiles. Merck Veterinary Manual.