Last year, my wife, Joyce, and I were on a late-spring hike at Shaw Nature Reserve in Franklin County when she spotted a small turtle basking on a patch of moss next to a lake. At first, I shrugged the critter off as a box turtle, but Joyce urged me to take a closer look. As I approached the turtle, which had a nondescript, domed shell and a striped face and neck, I realized that I was seeing a species I’d never observed before — an eastern musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) formerly known as a stinkpot.
“Hey, you were right,” I reluctantly called back to Joyce as I knelt for a closer look. “I think it might be a stinkpot.” As I picked up the turtle to examine its features, I noticed the musky odor, a defensive mechanism from which the turtle got both its common and scientific names. I also spotted several fleshy barbels on the skin and neck of the specimen, a key feature of the species.
Although our hike was intended for exercise more than photography, I had thrown my camera and a 300mm lens in my shoulder bag at the last minute. Before long, I was lying in the wet grass, capturing images of this interesting turtle from every angle. According to The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri by Tom R. Johnson, the eastern musk turtle is the smallest turtle in Missouri. It’s in the Kinosternidae family (mud and musk turtles), which is represented by other small, dull-colored turtles. Johnson describes the stinkpot as semi-aquatic, and I soon learned of its affinity for water when it grew tired of the attention and hightailed it down the shoreline back into the lake. When the commotion was over, Joyce joined me to review the images on my camera, and remind me that she discovered the stinkpot.
Eastern musk turtles are abundant in slow-current sections of rivers and larger streams of the Ozarks, the swamps, sloughs, and small ditches of the Bootheel, and in a few rivers in the northeastern part of the state. They are occasionally found in ponds and lakes, as well. Favored habitat includes shallow water where they often bask on logs, rocks, or small, horizontal tree trunks. Prey includes aquatic insects, earthworms, crayfish, tadpoles, and other small creatures, living or dead.
Eastern musk turtles are active from March to November. Courtship and mating occur from late April through June. Eggs are laid in late June through August, with two to five eggs per female. Eggs hatch in two or three months, and upon hatching young turtles are less than an inch long.
Later in the week, I checked with the Missouri Herpetological Atlas Project, which revealed that Joyce’s sighting of the eastern musk turtle, or stinkpot, was the first official record for Franklin County. Elated, she proclaimed her status from that point on as the “Stinkpot Queen.”
—Story and photograph by Danny Brown
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