Erica Mede, CVT

Natural History

Common Musk turtles, also called Stinkpots, are native to North America from south eastern Canada down through the south eastern and south central United States .  This semi-aquatic species of turtle prefers non-brackish water in the form of more permanent slow moving, shallow ponds, creeks, and lakes.  This species is heavily aquatic.  Although they are semi-aquatic turtles like the Red Eared slider and the Painted turtle, the Musk turtle only occasionally bask, preferring to enter shallower areas of water warmed by the sun than sit on a log or rock in the open.  However, when this species does bask, it has a preference for water logged branches that stick out of the water.

In 1975, the United States government banned the sale of any chelonian with a carapace (top shell) less than four inches long in hopes of preventing the spread of Salmonella and the destruction of native species in the wild.  With the age of easily accessible information via the World Wide Web, private breeders have been successfully breeding and incubating Musk turtles and now offer their domestically bred chelonians online.  As to the legalities regarding this practice, that is for the government to decide.  Domestically bred Musk turtles are always recommended over their wild caught counterparts.


These chelonians have small oval carapaces with gray skin and yellow markings along the head from the nose to the just past the eye.  The yellow markings are actually two stripes. The southern specimens are usually darker colored than their northern counterparts.  Both the females and the males have barbells under their chin.  With large heads and strong jaws these turtles have a slightly comical look to them.  These turtles have been known to live for 30-50 years in captivity.

Hatchlings have strong keeled carapaces which smooth out as they mature until they have the smooth adult look.  This slow moving species is not only equipped with a powerful bite, but also a set of glands near the rear of the turtle that excrete a foul smelling thick liquid.  Males can be quite aggressive. Musk turtles top out around 4-5 inches in shell length but they have mighty attitudes.

Sexing and Reproduction

Between February and June, Musk turtles will start their breeding.  Mating typically takes place underwater and can be quite aggressive.  Care must be taken that a smaller female is not accidentally drowned by an overzealous male.  Females will lay between 1 and 9 shelled eggs and hatch out after 9-12 weeks.  Males are differentiated from females by their larger, thicker tails generally.


It is recommended that all new turtles be quarantined away from the rest of the household chelonians for at least 60-90 days.  In this time period the owner can access the animal’s behavior and health status.  Chicago Exotics strongly urges owners to bring these animals in during quarantine for a wellness exam and a fecal evaluation.  Quarantine requires food, dishes, accessories, and cleaning of the chelonian to be done separately from the other chelonians.


The water temperature of the enclosure can be raised using under water heaters and under tank heaters on a thermostat to keep the water at 72-76 F°.  Hatchlings should be kept around 78-80 F°, however.  A thermometer in the water is highly recommended at the location furthest away from any heat source and one near the heat source.  If a submersible heater is used, it is recommended to place a piece of PVC pipe with several holes drilled into the sides of it over the heater to prevent accidental burns.  A general rule of thumb is a 55 watt water heater will work for a 40 gallon tanks, a 75 watt heater for a 55 gallon tank,

The air temperature in the tank can be easily raised using a basking light or a ceramic heat emitter.  Metal dome clamp lights work well for this.  Under tank heaters can also be utilized.  A thermometer should be place on the opposite side as the basking light and another thermometer placed at the level the chelonian will be while basking.  The ambient (air) temperature should be 82-86 F with the basking site reaching near 92 F.


Glass aquariums are one of the best for these chelonians and the larger the better!  This species loves to swim and explore their enclosures.  Hatchlings and juveniles can be comfortably kept in a 20 to 29-gallon tank.  Adults need a minimum of a 29-gallon tank.  The bigger the better!  Some owners opt to create custom enclosures for their pets as well, generally the enclosures should be at least 24 inches long, 12 inches wide, and 18 inches tall. Generally speaking, there should be 6 inches of aquarium floor per every 1 inch of turtle.  If the turtle has a carapace length of 5 inches, it will require 30 inches of aquarium floor space at least.  Other enclosures to consider for multiple turtles should be at least 36 inches long, 18 inches high, and 12 inches wide and include modified plastic tubs, outdoor ponds, and koi tubs.  With a bit of creativity, enclosure potential is endless!  Remember that there needs to be at least a quarter of the cage as land where the turtle can completely pull itself out of the water to bask and dry dock as it sees fit.


With Musk turtles, it is recommended to have a bare bottom tank, one without substrate.  If substrate is desired for enrichment or aesthetic purposes, large gravel can be used.  An under gravel filter is strongly recommended as well as weekly agitation (stirring up the stones to give the filters a chance to filter out the debris) and siphoning of the debris.  An under gravel filter is not enough filtration to maintain a clean environment and will need to be supplemented with other filtration devices.  Every 2-4 weeks the rocks should be removed from the tank and scrubbed well with a toothbrush designated for the job and bleach diluted 1:20 with water.


The water for these turtles is important!  These are fresh water turtles that enjoy swimming.  Chlorine free water depth should be around 10 inches in the shallow end and 24 inches deep in the deep end for adults and 3 to 4 inches deep for hatchlings.  Musk turtles enjoy a mild current in the water which can be created using strong filters or water jets.  Change a third of the water once a week to keep water clean.

Canister filters are recommended by Chicago Exotics for all chelonians.  These filters offer both mechanical and biofiltration and are less stressful to aquatic turtles as there is no mechanical vibration on the tank from the filter body itself.  Fluval, Magnum, and Eheim make excellent filters and there are a few websites that illustrate how to create your own canister filter.  External filtration helps to remove uneaten food and large waste particles as well as agitate surfaces and increase water oxygenation.


As with most reptiles, Musk turtles do well on a light cycle that simulates 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness.  A high quality UVB bulb such as a 5.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for adults and a 10.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for hatchlings and young turtles.  These bulbs help the body convert D into D3 which helps the body absorb and metabolize calcium thus preventing the disfiguring and deadly metabolic bone disease which is generally caused by a lack of available calcium in the reptiles’ body.


Enclosure accessories are necessary for enrichment and promotion of healthy behavior patterns.  A hide area provided underwater in the form of a broken flower pot, sturdy and anchorched rock structures, or commercially available under water hides are necessary to give the turtle a place to hide from sight.  This promotes a feeling of security and in the case of multiple cage mates, allows each turtle a chance to have some solitary time.  Artificial and real plants are fantastic and offer visual appeal as well as more hiding places.  Live plants may be eaten or uprooted but are enjoyed by Musk turtles.  Duckweed, water lettuce, and water hyacinth are easy to keep and find.  Bog wood and rocks are always an excellent addition to a Musk turtle enclosure especially since these turtles like to crawl out of the water on branches to bask occasionally.


Musk turtles less than 6 months old should be fed twice daily and turtles over 6 months old should be fed once every other day.  These animals must be fed in the water to facilitate swallowing as their tongues are not meant to push food to the back of the mouth for swallowing.  It is recommended to offer as much food as will be consumed in a period of 10-15 minutes to avoid obesity and water fouling from rotting food.  If the water is becoming fouled too quickly and obesity is starting to be a problem the amount of food offered should be decreased.  All food should be sprinkled with a multi-vitamin once a week and a calcium supplement daily for hatchlings ad three times a week for adults.

These turtles are primarily carnivores but will eat floating duck weed, water lettuce, and water hyacinth in their enclosure.  Like wise, they will nibble on floating leaves of lettuce which also offers them some enrichment.  The key to a healthy Musk turtle is to offer variety in the diet.  Small fish (not goldfish) can be offered to Musk turtles but it is preferred they either be slow moving or frozen-thawed as this species is not adept at catching fast moving prey and are more likely to scavenge a dead fish body in the wild rather than catch one in their mouths.  Insects such as earth worms, crickets, and snails should be offered as well as food items such as small crayfish.  Supplementation with commercially produced turtle pellet diets is recommended as well.  Some owners prefer to feed only commercially produced turtle pellet diets, in this case, Chicago Exotics recommends feeding multiple brands of turtle pellets to insure adequate nutrition and offer enrichment through variety and shape difference.

Sources and Recommended Readings

Turtles of the World, Carl H. Ernst and Roger W. Barbour
Turtles of the United States and Canada, Carl H. Ernst, Jeffery E. Lovich, Roger W. Barbour
Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles, Russ Gurley
Aquatic Turtles, David T. Kirkpatrick
Turtles and Tortoises, R. D. Bartlett
Tortoise Trust,

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.