Ever notice how many of the colloquialisms we use for comparisons aren’t all that apropos, or even true?  Like…

  • graceful as a swan (have you ever seen one on land?)
  • dull as ditchwater (believe me, that liquid is lively at the microbial level)
  • happy as a clam (surely not all clams are cheerful, especially those who are yanked out of their bed for an impromptu dinner invitation)

So forgive me for making an obvious, if not completely accurate, correlation between North American softshell turtles and pancakes. True, these aquatic reptiles aren’t literally as round and flat as flapjacks… then again, not every flour-based breakfast food cooked on a griddle is invariably spherical and level.

My home continent is host to three species of softshells, all members of the Apalone genus, all aquatic, all circular in shape (or at least an oval), all more horizontal than vertical although varying in size and thickness.

The six subspecies of spiny softshells (Apalone spinifera) pour across the central U.S. states, spread into Canada (Ontario and Quebec) and dribble into Mexico (Tamaulipas, Nuevo, León, Coahulla, and Chihuahua), yet these Midwesterners resemble the European style of round, thin unleavened hotcakes. Their common and scientific names refer to pointy cone-shaped knobs on the leading edge of the body’s rim. Juveniles and adult males are batter-yellow to olive-green and splattered with maple syrup brown spots, while females darken to mottled molasses as they age. Males widen to salad plate circumference of 5 to 9½ inches (13-24 cm), and you can double that to dinner or large charger plate (9½ to 19 inches or 24-48 cm) for the average size of a female spiny.

Two subspecies of smooth softshells (A. mutica) are also indigenous to the central and south-central river basins of North America, although their range is constrained to the U.S., stretching from North Dakota south to Louisiana, New Mexico east to Tennessee. Both males and females have a somewhat fluffier figure befitting a blintz or a buttermilk. Males broaden to saucer size (5 to 7 inches or  13-18 cm in diameter), while females are twice again that expansive (7 to 14 inches or 18-35 cm). The two sexes differ in color as well – females tend to be beef stock brown or olive, males and juveniles tend toward olive-drab  – but all are flecked with dark brown bits of random shapes and sizes.

The Florida softshell (A. ferox) is native to four southeastern U.S. states – Alabama, Florida (no surprise there), Georgia, and South Carolina. In keeping with the region’s dietary reputation, this species is suitably supersized, more Belgian waffle than crêpe. Males measure up at 6 to 13 in (15-33 cm), and females are 3-5 times larger (11 to 25 inches or 28-63 cm). Juveniles have a cornmeal yellow margin on top and vary in hue from chartreuse to baguette tan to pretzel brown, with a plummy gray to blackened base.  By adulthood, their exterior is wrinkled and oblong, and has faded to variegated walnut brown or caper green above, and parchment paper white below.

What all three of these turtles have in common, with each other and their fellow members of the Trionychidae family, is a preference for the life aquatic, and a pliable, al dente carapace instead of the rigid scales of, say, an Eastern box turtle. Not that a soft shell is required for a turtle to live submerged, as ably demonstrated by the red-eared slider, for one. Even so, the silky smooth nappe of the Apalone trio provides a speed and agility advantage over the starchy domed croûte of their cumbersome kin — whether moving through water, along the muddy or sandy bottoms of rivers and lakes, or even on land.

Softshells also have an elongated neck. When extended, and affixed as it is to the disk-shaped carapace, one can’t help but be reminded of a skillet handle. The lengthy neck is an anatomical adaptation that allows these turtles to sink into a mud or sand substrate and yet continue to breath through their tubular, ziti-like nostrils while immersed in a foot or more of water, wait for their next meal.

Stealth is not their only dinnertime strategy, though. Apalone turtles are speedy swimmers who will pursue prey.  Smooth, spiny, and Florida species are all predominantly meat-eaters, subsisting on fish, frogs, mollusks, crustaceans, and other invertebrates, as well as birds and small mammals when they appear on the menu. They’ll also include an occasional side-dish of algae or aquatic vegetation. 

You know, on second thought, maybe the food analogy I’ve been using throughout this post is rather insensitive. Softshell turtles have long been considered a culinary delicacy.

Demand in East Asia, in particular, has increased pressure on North American species. Back in 2008, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimated an average of 3,000 pounds of softshells were being exported out of the Tampa International Airport alone each week. In 2009, in response to environmental groups and growing demand from abroad, the Florida Commission reduced the daily limit of wild-caught turtles from 20 per day per licensed harvester, to one turtle per person per day, prohibited harvesting of softshells from May through July, and banned trade in wild-caught turtles. A few other states have followed suit. Laws are definitely a step in the right direction when paired with enforcement… but not a cure-all, especially in an age when the Internet has truly globalized commerce and, it has to be said, facilitated black market trade of all manner of bushmeat.

Look, softshells are carnivores and this is an eat and be eaten world. There are no innocents here. It simply isn’t possible to be alive and not have a footprint. This is a finite planet, a fact often ignored by my own species, singular in its amplification of calorie consumption from need to greed. We humans ignore this reality at our own peril, and if we fail to respect the limitations of our food resources we may one day find the cupboard is bare.

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© 2020 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Andrew Hoffman, Sam Stukel USFWS Mountain-Prairie, Todd Pierson, RW Sinclair, J. Maughn, Kenneth Cole Schneider, Kenneth Cole Schneider, Jan Stefka, and Lucy Mills.