The stinkpot turtle is a highly aquatic and secretive turtle. It is also sometimes referred to as a musk turtle, a name that eludes to the musky fluid that the turtle secretes when it feels threatened. The stinkpot turtle is highly nocturnal, feeding on snails, aquatic insects and vegetation at night in shallow water areas. Due to the loss of its habitat, the stinkpot turtle became a threatened species in 2002.

What is the Stinkpot turtle?

Close-up of the head of a stinkpot turtle.
Stinkpots can be distinguished from other turtles
by its prominent yellow lines on the side of its head.
Close-up of a Stinkpot turtle standing on a shell in shallow water
Stinkpots are shallow water turtles. Stinkpots emit a musky odors from glands located on the edge of its shell.

The stinkpot turtle is a small turtle that has a domed carapace (top of the shell) and a very small plastron (bottom of the shell). It has two yellow lines that extend from the nose and flare out to either sides of the eye. Male turtles can be distinguished from female turtles by two patches of rough scales that occur on the inner side of each hind leg, and by a longer, thicker tail with a thick spine at the tip.

Where is the Stinkpot turtle found?

Stinkpot turtles are rarely found on land. The only time these turtles are required to move onto land is during nesting, where they will lay their eggs along shoreline areas. Unlike other turtles that bask out of water, stinkpot turtles prefer to bask a few inches underwater during the day. They are poor swimmers and prefer to crawl along the bottoms of water bodies

Stinkpot turtles require shallow bodies of water with a soft substrate and little or no current. In Canada the stinkpot turtle occurs in southern Ontario, extending north to Georgian Bay, in wetland communities and along lake and river edges. Areas that offer some protection to stinkpot turtle populations in Ontario include St. Lawrence Islands National Park, Georgian Bay Islands National Park, Point Pelee National Park, Bruce Peninsula National Park, Rideau Canal National Historic Site and the Trent- Severn Waterway National Historic Site. Most of the turtle’s lifecycle occurs in water, which is often outside of Parks Canada jurisdiction, although nesting sites are found on Parks Canada property. By protecting these sites Parks Canada is helping to ensure that stinkpot turtle populations are secure in local areas.

Who knew?

Young stinkpot turtle on a ruler for measurement.
The stinkpot turtle is the smallest turtle in Canada, making it the most vulnerable to predation (from raptors etc.), even when mature.

Stinkpot turtles are poor swimmers and walkers, however they are known to be excellent tree climbers. On very rare occasions they have been know to climb up to 2 metres up a tree.

What is the status of the Stinkpot turtle?

The stinkpot turtle was listed as “threatened” federally by the COSEWIC in May 2002. Is listed on Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act, which provides protection under federal law.

The stinkpot turtle is also listed as “threatened” provincially in Ontario by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources' Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO).

Why is the Stinkpot turtle in danger?

The major factor leading to the decline of Stinkpot turtles in Canada is shoreline development and the draining of wetlands.

Shoreline vegetation and adjacent aquatic plants provide the suitable that stinkpot turtles require to live. As aquatic vegetation is removed, so is the food source for stinkpot turtles. Rotten logs and abandoned muskrat houses along shorelines are required by stinkpot turtles, as they provide necessary nesting habitat. When the shoreline is altered there is less habitat to sustain stinkpot populations.

Wetland drainage has also been a major factor contributing to stinkpot turtle habitat decline. The turtles do not have the capability of traveling overland to another area when a wetland is drained. Being highly aquatic, they will dehydrate quickly and face mortality when there is insufficient water available.

Stinkpot turtles have been extirpated from particular areas due to habitat destruction, and it is estimated that there has been a 30%-50% decline in the overall population. Because of their secretive nature, stinkpot turtles can disappear from an area without anyone ever noticing.

Why protect the Stinkpot turtle?

Ecosystem health can be closely linked to human health. Natural shoreline vegetation helps to minimize the amount ecoli bacteria entering the water from septic systems, which often results in the closure of local beaches in the summer.

Natural shorelines not only provide habitat for stinkpot turtles, but help to minimize the amount of nutrients that enter the water, which in turn can be detrimental to fish.

When preserving wetland habitat for stinkpot turtles you will also be providing healthy drinking water to your community. Wetlands act as groundwater recharge areas, filtering out contaminants that degrade the quality of drinking water.

Stinkpot turtles are part of our natural heritage. They are an important species that helps to maintain the balance of fragile ecosystems. It is our responsibility to ensure that stinkpot turtles are protected so that they can be enjoyed and appreciated by future generations

What is Parks Canada doing for the Stinkpot turtle?

Close-up of the head of a stinkpot turtle.
Females stinkpots can lay up to one clutch of two to seven eggs per year.

St. Lawrence Islands National Park is working in collaboration with the University of Ottawa on stinkpot turtle research in the Thousand Islands Ecosystem. This research involves population monitoring, which determines the number of stinkpot turtles inhabiting areas, as well as a study of the turtle’s home range (what type of habitat it uses and how much habitat monitoring research is conducted by marking and recapturing individual turtles. Home range studies are done by tracking turtles using radio telemetry equipment. Antennae are attached to the back of the turtle’s shell, which allows researchers to locate stinkpot basking areas, areas where food supply is sufficient, hibernation sites, and nesting areas. The research helps to identify priority areas for stinkpot turtle conservation, and to assess the needs of a turtle at risk.

St. Lawrence Islands National Park is also working in association with Public Works and Government Services of Canada on a shoreline restoration project at the Mallorytown Landing Visitor Centre site along the St. Lawrence River. The traditional day use area is being converted to an environmental demonstration area, with a strong focus on shoreline restoration. Retaining walls that made up the shoreline in the past have been removed and replaced with shoreline vegetation. The site is a tool that demonstrates to regional residents and park visitors how a healthy shoreline can be beneficial to wildlife species such as stinkpot turtles and also promote a better quality of life in the region.

The Rideau Canal National Historic Site has commenced work on identifying where stinkpot turtle populations occur in their area. By having a better understanding on where they persist, staff can identify areas of focus for conservation efforts.

How can I help?

Stinkpot turtle swimming in shallow water.
Stinkpot turtles depend highly on natural shoreline habitat for nesting. Parks Canada and its partners currently work on restoring and maintaining shorelines and wetlands, the critical habitat of the stinkpot turtle.

It is important to keep shorelines natural. When developing shoreline property set aside an area that is natural, and refrain from impacting aquatic vegetation found in the water adjacent to your property that provides critical habitat for stinkpot turtles. If you own an altered shoreline there are also ways in which to return all of it- or part of it- to a more natural setting.

For information on healthy shorelines you can access the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Shore Primer website.

It is important to retain wetland areas in Ontario to promote the recovery of stinkpot turtles. Many wetland areas have been removed in Ontario, so it is important that landowners value and protect their remaining wetland ecosystems. For more information on wetlands visit Environment Canada’s website: Working around wetlands? What you should know.