The eastern spiny softshell has small bumps or spines on the front of the upper shell and a small ridge on each side of the snout. Shell color varies with age and sex. Males and young turtles have an olive or grayish-tan upper shell with small black dots and circles and a black line along the margin. Adult females have a dark olive or tan upper shell with brown and gray blotches. The lower shell is a plain cream color. Head and limbs are normally tan or olive with small brown or black spots. A yellow stripe, bordered by dark brown, runs from the snout through the eye and along the side of the head; another light stripe runs from the jaw onto the neck.
Though they lack a hard shell, softshells defend themselves with strong jaws and by being fast swimmers. They also use their strong, sharp claws to defend themselves when picked up. They should be handled very carefully to avoid injury.
Similar species: The western spiny softshell subspecies (A. spinifera hartwegi) has small (not large) circular markings along the center of the upper shell. It occurs statewide. The midland smooth softshell (A. mutica mutica) lacks bumps or spines at the front of the upper shell.