“…in all the rivers, lakes, and ponds of East Florida, the great soft-shelled tortoises: they are very large when full grown, from twenty to thirty and forty pounds weight, extremely fat and delicious, but if eaten to excess, are apt to purge people not accustomed to eat their meat.” Bartram described this turtle species while at “Halfway Pond, in a spacious meadow, beneath a chain of elevated sand-hills…” Bartram’s Halfway Pond is the present-day Cowpen Lake, near Interlachen, on SR 20, in southwest Putnam County. Softshells are still common in this lake and other lakes in the region.
Softshells belong to the turtle family Trionychidae. These unusual turtles have a long fossil history that stretches back millions years to the age of dinosaurs. Today living species occur in Asia, Africa, and North America. Softshells are unique among turtles in that their shells are soft, leathery, and completely devoid of scales. Embedded in this flexible, fleshy shell are bony structures that correspond to the carapace and plastron of other turtles, except they lack the typical peripheral shell bones found in most other turtle shells.
Bartram’s Florida softshell (Apalone ferox) is one of three species of softshells found in Florida. The Florida softshell occurs in most aquatic habitats throughout the state including the Florida Keys. The smooth softshell (Apalone muticus) and the spiny softshell (Apalone spiniferus) occur in riverine habitats in west Florida, with the spiny also in the St. Mary’s River in northeast Florida.
Powerful legs and webbed feet propel Florida softshells through water with great speed and agility. They also will lie in wait partially buried in the mucky lake bottom, ready to spring on would-be prey. Their snorkel-like faces enable them to stay nearly submerged with only their nose and eyes penetrating the water surface. Long flexible necks and strong jaws allow them to catch crayfishes and other active aquatic prey. They will also scavenge animal remains and fleshy fruits when available.
Female Florida softshells (Apalone ferox) achieve a much larger body side (up to 24 inches) than mature males (6-12 inches, occasionally larger). Females lay 10-25 eggs per clutch and they may lay more than one clutch a year. Eggs are hard-shelled, round, and about an inch in diameter. They are laid in nests dug by the mother using her hind legs usually at sandy spots, often considerable distances from the turtle’s normal watery habitat. Eggs take more than two months to incubate. Hatchlings are about 1.5 inches when they emerge from their nests. There are many pitfalls along the way that prevent the many of the young turtles from finding their way to water. Youngsters that survive the trip are confronted with new hazards among them hungry fish, alligators, and birds.