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Spiny Softshell

Spiny Softshell

North Dakota Species of Conservation Priority III

Fact Sheet
Scientific Name Apalone spinifera
General Description Very similar to the Smooth Softshell turtle. L 19” for females and 9” for males. The carapace is circular in shape, olive-gray to orange-brown, smooth, flat, and leathery-like. Major distinguishing characteristic is the row of fleshy “spines” along the front edge of its shell.
Status Year-round resident.
Abundance Rare.
Primary Habitat Large rivers and streams with sandy beaches or sandbars.
Federal Status No federal status.
Reason for Designation Although more common then it smooth counterpart, the Spiny Softshell is found only in the southern Missouri River and tributaries, a habitat that has been impacted significantly impoundment.

Locations and Conditions of Key Habitat

Preferred Habitat

Softshells prefer permanent streams or creeks with a sandy or muddy bottom and sandy beaches. They may burrow into the sand under shallow water for a long period of time. Frequently bask on river banks and logs, but flee quickly if disturbed. Females do not mature until around 9 years of age, when they lay one to three clutches of 4- 33 hard-shelled eggs on sandbars. Feed primarily on crayfish, small invertebrates, frogs, and small fish.

Key Areas and Conditions for Spiny Softshell in North Dakota

Spiny Softshell turtles have been documented in the tributaries of the Missouri River below Garrison Dam and the head waters of Lake Oahe.

Problems Which May Affect this Species


Habitat alteration from the impoundment of the Missouri River has affected the distribution of this species. Availability and quality or the alteration/destruction of sandbars in the lower Missouri River stretch could affect nesting

Other Natural or Manmade Factors

Nesting turtles may be disturbed by human recreation on sandbars.

Research and Survey Efforts

Current Research or Surveys

  • North Dakota State University is surveying reptiles and amphibians in SE North Dakota. This includes the Missouri River.

Previous Research or Surveys

  • The North Dakota Game and Fish Department sampled turtles in the Missouri River. 2005-2007.
  • Wheeler and Wheeler (1966) conducted a statewide survey of all amphibians and reptiles, as well as compiled existing records. The turtles were found statewide in permanent water.
  • Hoberg and Gause (1992) recorded personal observations of Snapping Turtles in North Dakota.
  • A compilation of all records in North Dakota by Jundt (2000) listed 3 documentations of the False Map Turtle in the state.

Additional Research or Surveys Needed

Future survey efforts could include additional trapping efforts along the Missouri River and in smaller streams leading into the Missouri.

Management Recommendations

  • Avoid clearing or replacing natural vegetation along shoreline, providing at least 50-75 feet of undisturbed habitat to protect water quality and prevent erosion.
  • Leave logs, snags, and other woody debris on site, or replace if removed.
  • Limit erosion control structures such as retaining walls or riprap that will limit or prevent access to the shoreline and adjacent habitat.
  • Do not alter natural river undulations, backwater areas, or sand and gravel bars.
  • When possible, keep cattle out of streams to reduce impacts on water quality and the streambed.

Monitoring Plans

Currently no monitoring is taking place. Possible monitoring options could include school classes/programs including universities, the general public through the NDGFD incidental reporting system, or national monitoring initiatives such as PARC. Monitoring should be directed at all turtle species.

2005-2015 Progress

The spiney softshell turtle was added to the Species of Conservation Priority list with a level III ranking. Turtle surveys of the Missouri river from 2007 to 2009 provided the first confirmed sightings of this species. Little is known of this species life history details in the state, so more investigation is needed.

Range Map

Note: A listing of works consulted when compiling the information on this page may be found in the 2015 State Wildlife Action Plan.