Common Musk Turtle Care Sheet

Scientific Facts

Common Name Common Musk Turtle, Stinkpot Turtle, Eastern Musk Turtle
Scientific Name Sternotherus odoratus
Captive Lifespan More than 20 Years
Size 4 – 4.5 inches
Mass 1329 lb.
Habitat River habitats, ponds, and lakes, slow-moving streams
Country of Origin Southeastern Canada, Eastern United States

Physical Description

Image Source

Common musk turtles are characterized by a carapace colored in blackish-brown, with no markings. The carapace is highly domed, with a vertebral keel. Meanwhile, the plastron is smaller in size.

Among common musk turtle hatchlings and juveniles alike, the keel is strongly prominent. However, as these turtles mature, the keel usually flattens.

Running parallel to one another, extending all the way from the nose to the neck, a pair of yellow stripes can be easily noticed on the head of Sternotherus odoratus species. These distinctly colored stripes gradually fade as the turtles are to age over time.

With a sharp beak and a pointed snout, the common musk turtle has rather short legs, especially when compared with the relatively long neck.


Grouped in the same family as mud turtles, Sternotherus odoratus is part of the family Kinosternidae and is a species of a small turtle. Musk turtles are often confused with mud turtles.

There are five species/subspecies of musk turtles, and all of them can be found in North America.

Apart from the common musk turtle (S. odoratus), there is also the loggerhead musk turtle (S. minor), the razorback musk turtle (S. carinatus), the flattened musk turtle (S. depressus), and the stripe-necked musk turtle (S. minor peltifer). The stripe-necked musk turtle is very, very rare in captivity, while the flattened musk turtle, even though easy to take care of, is currently almost impossible to get, especially since it is critically endangered with extinction.

Male common musk turtles can be distinguished by the spike that sticks out at the very end of the tail, the tail being visibly longer as compared to the tail of a female Sternotherus odoratus.

Also, with male stinkpots, the anal vent, which is located on the tail’s underside, is found to extend out beyond the plastron. Males are usually smaller than females.

Habitat & Lifespan

Common Musk Turtles are known to inhabit North America’s eastern parts, ranging from Florida and all the way to Ontario, further extending to Texas and Wisconsin in the west.

The preferred type of habitats for these reptiles are aquatic and include the slow-flowing parts of streams, swamps, lakes, marshes, ponds, ephemeral pools, and rivers.

As with most turtles, the lifespan of Sternotherus odoratus is quite long. While these turtles generally live for more than 20 years, there are records of captive specimens that are known to have reached over 50 years of age.


Common musk turtles are almost completely aquatic, spending a huge amount of their time in slow-moving water, peacefully hidden among heavy vegetation on the shallow bottom of creeks and ponds.

On the rare occasions when the eastern musk turtles venture onto land, they either do so in order to bask or for the purpose of laying eggs.

Interestingly, these turtles can climb by sloping. They do so by using the submerged branches, and tree trunks found underwater, and are capable of climbing as high as 6.6 ft. above the water surface.

However, musk turtles are actually poor at swimming. Because of this, they are to walk along the bottom of their aquatic habitats.


  1. For housing one adult common musk turtle, caregivers want to utilize a 20-gallon aquarium. It is utterly important that the aquarium is to be equipped with a submersible canister water filter.
  2. For housing a pair of common musk turtles, a 40-gallon aquarium will work great. Also, a powerful water filter should be utilized based on the aquarium’s size.
  3. For hatchling common musk turtles, it is best to stick with small containers, such as plastic tubs, with 10 and up to 12cm of water. Small containers make it much easier to observe the turtles at this age; hence, it is also safer to do so to ensure their well-being.


For keeping a common musk turtle as a pet, no substrate is required. Although a bare-bottom aquarium is certainly very easy to clean, it isn’t the most aesthetical option, and so caregivers who wish to create a more naturalistic, attractive enclosure can opt for medium-sized gravel instead.

Temperature & Lighting

  1. As a rule of thumb, even though common musk turtles will not emerge on the water surface frequently, they will sometimes need to emerge in order to bask. Because of this, a basking light is crucial to ensure the reptile’s health and well-being.
  2. Position the basking light right over the spot that the turtle is to use for basking. In the basking site, temperatures should be maintained within the 90 degrees Fahrenheit range.
  3. The ambient temperature within the enclosure should be kept in the mid-80s Fahrenheit range. For this purpose, a ceramic heat emitter fixed using a metal dome clamp light can do a wonderful job.
  4. To help captive eastern musk turtles metabolize calcium properly, as well as to prevent Vitamin D3 and Vitamin A deficiencies, caregivers are required to opt for a high-quality UVB bulb. You can find UVB bulbs from various manufacturers, commonly sold in reptile stores, both online and offline.
  5. To simulate the natural conditions for common musk turtles, keep UVB light bulbs ON for 12 hours and OFF for 12 hours. A strict lighting cycle will ensure the reptile’s well-being and longevity. The lighting cycle can be controlled manually, but light timers are strongly recommended, as they are very convenient, affordable, and easy to use.
  6. Maintain water temperature from 72 and up to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. For this purpose, you need a submersible heater.
  7. Always use reliable devices to measure and maintain the temperature rates within the recommended range. Even though common musk turtles are fairly hardy creatures, and they are able to tolerate fluctuations in temperatures to a certain degree, improper temperatures will certainly affect the turtles’ longevity and well-being in the long run.


The diet of common musk turtles consists of various insects, like dragonflies and damselfly nymphs, as well as aquatic tadpoles and larvae. As carnivorous creatures, these turtles also feed on a vast array of aquatic invertebrates, like freshwater clams, snails, and crayfish, among others. It is not uncommon for carrion and fish to be a part of these turtles’ diets, too.

Although occasionally, adult common musk turtles are to seek plant matter, like duckweed or Elodea species, to feed with.

Common musk turtles kept as pets will gladly take appropriately-sized, cut-up shrimps, fish, bloodworms, and crickets, as well as earthworms.

Feeding pet stinkpots with pelleted turtle food is also recommended. It is best to let pellets soak in tank water for a while just before feeding, as to let them soften a bit.

Eating Habits

As compared to adults, hatchlings are known to be significantly more carnivorous. However, as the turtles mature, they may develop a taste for aquatic plants, as well.

These turtles are known to actively pursue any terrestrial insects that are to fall into the water, and nonetheless, small tadpoles.

Common musk turtles like nothing more than they like food, so watching them gladly feed is certainly one of the most curious and wonderful aspects of keeping these creatures as pets.

Sleeping Habits

In the wild, Common Musk Turtles are known to hibernate by burying themselves in muskrat lodges or in the mud found under various logs.


  1. The water within a captive common musk turtle’s enclosure must be de-chlorinated. This can be achieved by various commercial-grade conditioners.
  2. Make sure that the water within the aquarium is as deep as to allow the turtle to touch the bottom with its hind legs, while also being able to slightly stretch without the need to constantly paddle the water. By providing a depth that will allow the turtle to stretch slightly above the water surface, the animal will be able to breathe freely at the surface whenever needed.
  3. For most of their time, common musk turtles will barely leave the water. However, when they do want to leave the water in order to bask, they require a suitable haul-out area, such as a floating dock.

Development and Reproduction

Common musk turtles are known to breed in the spring.

After successfully mating with a male, the female is to lay anything from 2 and up to 9 eggs right under the shoreline debris or in a shallow burrow. The eggs of Sternotherus odoratus are elliptical in shape, and with hard shells.

Following an incubation period that varies from 100 and up to 150 days, common musk turtles’ eggs are to hatch either in late summer or in early fall. Due to the rather long incubation period, these turtles display delayed emergence.

Similarly to other turtle species, the worst threat to eggs is none other but predation. In fact, predation is the leading cause of high mortality rates, a particular example being the destruction of 25 out of 32 nests of a population of common musk turtles in Pennsylvania.

Hatchlings are characterized by a very rigid shell. However, the shell is to gradually become less pronounced with age, until at some point, it becomes domed and smooth. The size of hatchings is typically less than 1 inch.

How to Breed

Since musk turtles prefer to lay their eggs in shallow water, usually under tree logs in the wild, breeders want to provide a similar structure when the breeding time is to take place.

The pair should be monitored daily since it might be the case that the male is to injury the female.

Hatchlings can be kept in plastic tubes with about 10 – 12cm of water, with added river cobbles, a piece of rough cork (cork is floatable, which is crucial), as well as a decent handful of Egeria densa, as well as duckweed. Commonly sold as Elodea, Egeria dense is one of the easiest aquarium plants to grow.

When raised in such a tiny container, hatchlings will not really require any additional heating, as long as they are kept at normal room temperatures. Alternatively, if kept in a room with low ambient temperature, low-wattage aquarium heaters can do a great job.

For hatchlings, it is best that water temperatures are maintained within the 68 – 74 degrees Fahrenheit range.

A low-wattage desk lamp should be arranged right over the cork, and then plugged into a timer, so that the young musk turtles will be able to climb onto the cork in order to bask, while also being given the opportunity to rest at night.

For hatchlings, basking temperatures should be kept within the 82 – 89 degrees Fahrenheit range.

With the hatchling care method described above, no filter is needed, yet it is a must that the caregiver is to change the water at regular intervals.

Also, it is possible to keep hatchling common musk turtles in larger aquariums, but it is imperative that the water remains shallow. For larger aquariums, a suitable water filter should be included. Make sure to adjust the flow rate of the aquarium filter, since these turtles come from slow-moving or absolutely still water.


  1. Take care when handling a common musk turtle. Not only can these turtles use their long necks to bite, but handling these creatures improperly can cause them serious stress and/or direct damage, such as carapace injuries.
  2. In order to handle a common musk turtle the right way, keep your fingers facing toward the carapace’s rear. Doing so will greatly minimize the likelihood of an unwanted nip, but do be careful anyway.
  3. Captive-bred common musk turtles will rarely (if ever) get to emit their notoriously faulty smell and liquid, serving as a self-defense mechanism in the wild. With frequent handling and respect for the animal, a common musk turtle will soon get to experience no fear from the caregiver and will become content, and totally not in the mood for emitting any liquid and odor.

How to Treat and Prevent Possible Health Issues

  1. If housing more than a single common musk turtle, it is a must to keep a close eye on the group, or males may harass others in the group, leading to high stress and/or severe physical damage if left unattended. The less stress a common musk turtle experiences throughout its lifespan, the longer it will live.
  2. Even though the shells of common musk turtles are fairly hard, if dropped on the ground, the shell might get broken. Do never leave children under the age of 6 alone with a common musk turtle, as kids might get to think they are playing with the turtle, while they are actually causing it harm. Also, children are more susceptible to potentially getting infected with Salmonella bacteria.
  3. Sometimes, it may take common musk turtles a while before they get used to turtle pellet food. However, it is strongly recommended that the caregiver is to persevere since turtle pellet food is enriched with essential minerals and vitamins. Even though the basking light will help the turtle properly metabolize calcium and Vitamin D3, feeding a varied diet, with turtle pellet food included on a regular basis, is strongly encouraged to ensure the health status of your pet.
  4. If housing more than a single common musk turtle, make sure to offer food in more than one location. Given a large aquarium, these turtles can be cohabitated successfully by experienced musk turtles enthusiasts, yet malnourishment-related health issues may kick in due to these turtles often fighting over every morsel. Such type of food fights do not usually end up with any of the turtles getting harmed; however, it is often the case that some of the turtles in the group will fail to get a decent meal, and this can compromise their health in the long run.

Possible Dangers to Humans

When handling a newly acquired common musk turtle, or a wild-caught one, caution is strongly recommended, since these turtles’ neck can easily extend as far as their hind feet.

Most importantly, wild stinkpots, or those that are not well-familiar with their new owner and enclosure, and are most probably stressed, will typically not hesitate to bite in order to protect themselves in the case they are to feel threatened. However, the biting power of these turtles is not as powerful as that of the snapping turtle, although larger adult musk turtle specimens can certainly inflict a nastier bite than smaller musk turtles.

In the case of being bitten by a musk turtle, do not panic but quickly and thoroughly disinfect the wound and allow it to heal.

Although rarely, just like all reptiles and amphibians, musk turtles can transfer Salmonella bacteria to people, and this can lead to serious illness. A musk turtle’s caregiver will never have to deal with any issues related to Salmonella bacteria, provided he/she is to always strictly wash hands after touching the turtle, as well as after cleaning the turtle’s feces.

Availability: How to Get a Common Musk Turtle?

In general, common musk turtles are widely available.

Although it may be very tempting to get a common musk turtle from the wild if you happen to live in the same area where these reptiles thrive, doing so is not recommended, as it harms the populations of these incredible creatures in the wild by having them removed from their natural habitat.

When obtaining a musk turtle from a reptile dealer, make sure you can trust him/her, as there are many scammers who try selling various reptiles and amphibians, without taking proper care of these animals prior to selling them.

Fun Facts

  1. It is not uncommon for algae to grow on common musk turtles’ carapaces, giving them an especially interesting appearance.
  2. The tiny tongues of eastern musk turtles are covered in papillae that resemble miniature buds, allowing these creatures to respire when underwater.
  3. The nickname for common musk turtles is “stinkpot turtles” for a reason. These turtles can emit an offensive, foul smell if they are to feel startled and/or frightened. The smell is emitted from the glands located on the very corners of the plastron, and an orange-ish liquid is exuded. This defense mechanism is used to scare away natural predators or any other enemies. With captive common musk turtles, though, this defensive mechanism declines as the pets receiving frequent handling, therefore, not feeling the need to protect themselves by emitting the notorious smell.
  4. Even though turtles spend the majority of their time in the water, they are reptiles and not amphibians. Amphibians can absorb oxygen through their skin, while turtles, including but not limited to common musk turtles, have (largely) non-permeable skin.
  5. As these turtles can climb sloping, they have been sometimes known to accidentally drop into canoes or boats while trying to pass underneath.
  6. During the nesting season, and particularly after rainfall, common musk turtles can be often found on roads. Unfortunately, this has contributed to significantly high road mortality rates among these reptiles.
  7. Female common musk turtles are reported to show quite an unusual behavior, and in particular, they have a tendency to sharing nesting sites, unlike some amphibians and reptiles that actually demonstrate exactly the opposite tendency by ferociously fighting over nesting sites. In one case, researchers reported a total of 16 musk turtles’ nests found under a single log!

How to Take Care of a Common Musk Turtle

  1. It is not recommended to house two male common musk turtles in the same enclosure unless the enclosure is constructed by the addition of advanced setups, and given that this is not the caregiver’s first attempt with common musk turtles kept as pets.
  2. It is possible to house a male and a female common musk turtle in the same aquarium. However, the pair should be carefully monitored, since it is often the case that the male begins to demonstrate an excessive interest in the female, and in return starts to relentlessly harass her at some point. If such issues are to occur, the caregiver needs to separate the turtles immediately to prevent them from harm.
  3. In the wild, coarse woody debris, as well as fallen trees, are crucial components of common musk turtles’ wetland habitats. These components are extremely beneficial because of allowing the turtles to bask whenever desired. By decorating the enclosure of captive common musk turtles accordingly, with a mind to simulating their natural environment as well as possible, caregivers can not only enhance the authentic and aesthetic appeal of the aquarium but will also ensure the comfort and well-being of these beautiful reptiles.

FAQ Section

Are Common Musk Turtles Endangered?

In general, the populations of common musk turtles in the US are considered stable, and therefore, these turtles have no federal conservation status in the United States. However, the common musk turtle is listed as a threatened species in the state of Iowa, with human degradation of wetlands being the major concern leading to the decline of these turtles in some areas of their natural range. Also, these turtles are listed as species at risk in Canada.

How Fast to Common Musk Turtles Grow?

The growth rate of common musk turtles majorly depends on feeding frequency and quality. Young common musk turtles typically grow slow, doubling their size in about 10 months or so. The growth rate of these turtles declines with age.

Do Musk Turtles’ Bites Hurt?

The bites of young common musk turtles are not painful, and just like the case with adults, these turtles may only attempt to bite occasionally, mainly because of improper handling. However, mature, large common musk turtles can inflict a significantly more painful bite than young ones, so caution, as well as respect for the animal,  should be applied at all times.

Can Common Musk Turtles Drown?

Yes, common musk turtles can drown if not provided the opportunity to emerge on the water surface whenever needed. Just like humans, turtles have lungs. That being said, they cannot stay submerged underwater all the time, even though they are capable of holding their breath for much longer than people or other mammals possibly can.

How Long Can Musk Turtles Go without Food?

It is fully possible for a healthy, adult common musk turtle, and other musk turtles alike, to live for months without eating any food. However, it is not at all humane to leave a common musk turtle pet without any food for any longer than a maximum of several weeks.

How to Tell the Age of a Musk Turtle?

Just like with other turtles, you can try to tell the age of a common musk turtle by counting the rings that are easily visible on the turtle’s scutes. It is not uncommon for the rings within the scutes to alternate in size, ranging from narrower to wider rings.

Do Common Musk Turtles Make Good Pets?

For some, common musk turtles can make great pets. Common musk turtles are very hardy creatures and are fairly easy to take care of. Also, these turtles do not get very large, so given the proper care, they can bring unlimited joy to their caregiver for years to come.

Do Common Musk Turtle Pets Emit a Foul Smell?

When common musk turtles are raised in captivity with proper care, they will soon settle down, and get well-used to the presence of, as well as interaction with their caregiver. Once they settle in captivity, they will not feel threatened as to emit a foul smell as they would typically do in the wild.

What to Feed Common Musk Turtles with?

As they mature, common musk turtles are known to acquire a taste for vegetation, although their main diet should consist of appropriately sized shrimp, freshwater fish, crickets, bloodworms, earthworms, and pelleted turtle foods. However, they may also occasionally feast on aquatic vegetation, such as duckweed, water hyacinths, and water lettuce.

How Much Do Common Musk Turtles Eat?

It is best to only feed a common musk turtle as much as it can eat within 5 and up to 10 minutes. As a general rule of thumb, hatchlings should be fed every other day, while adult musk turtles should be fed about two-three times a week.

What Fish Can Live with Common Musk Turtles?

As a rule of thumb, it is best to avoid pairing common musk turtles with tropical fish species. However, these turtles can live with other fish species, such as zebras, yellow cichlids, as well as tetras, among others. Mind that it is possible for a common musk turtle to catch and eat a fish, even though this only happens rarely.

Can You Cohabitate Common Musk Turtles?

For experienced common musk turtles owners, it is possible to cohabitate these creatures without incidents, thanks to using advanced setups. However, for beginners, it is highly recommended not to cohabitate common musk turtles, as males are known to have a tendency to be sexually aggressive to both their own, as well as to other turtle species. Given a large aquarium, common musk turtles may be cohabitated successfully, yet caution should be applied at all times.

Colorado River Toad Care Sheet

Cooter Turtles Care sheet