Photo of the Week – March 2, 2012

Spiny softshell turtle. If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you might barely be able to see the little projections from the center of his nose that distinguish spiny softshells from smooth softshells.

Meet Henry.  Henry is a very small softshell turtle that spent a few days at our house in late August, 2010.  I’m not sure what Henry thought of the ordeal, but our family sure enjoyed having him.  He even went to school one day.

I found Henry along the Platte River and brought him home so my family and I could learn more about softshells – and I could get some photos.  Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will remember how I photograph small creatures like this (if you don’t remember, you can read about it here.)  Henry’s visit turned out to be a big success, at least from our standpoint, and we delivered him safely back to where I’d found him a few days later.

Spiny softshells are very good at burying themselves in sediment.

One of the things we learned was that softshells are very good at burying themselves in the sand – and they can do it amazingly quickly.  We’d be watching Henry walk along or sit and look at us, and then within about 5 seconds, he’d be gone.  It was really hard to tell how he did it – it was like he just slid into the wet sand.

Here, Henry shows off the length of his neck.

According to Dan Fogell’s excellent new field guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Nebraska, Henry really is a “Henry” – not a “Henrietta” because of the distinct spots on his back.  My kids, who named him (clearly) are relieved to know that.  Softshells have a smooth leathery carapace without the hard plates that are characteristic of most other turtles.  According to Fogell, they eat mainly small invertebrates, but will also scavenge on dead fish and even eat vegetable matter at times.  During  his short stay with us, Henry didn’t eat any of the offerings from my kids.

Henry - striking a regal pose.

Although I’m not a big fan of people taking animals out of nature, I do think there can be great value in employing them as ambassadors in certain circumstances.  I hope Henry recovered from his time with us, and is living a normal life in the river now.  My kids will certainly never forget the experience, and still talk about Henry fairly often.  Whenever we go to the river, we keep our eyes out for him – and his colleagues – and it’s hard to wonder how many softshells are watching us from their submerged hiding places as we walk around.  Because they were able to form a “relationship” with one of the inhabitants of the river, my kids now see that river differently.  Rather than water flowing through sand, it’s a place where creatures like Henry live.  From a conservation standpoint, that’s a pretty important distinction that I’d like everyone to make.

Thanks Henry.

This entry was posted in General, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography and tagged , , , , , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

11 thoughts on “Photo of the Week – March 2, 2012

  1. I imagine that smooth, shovel-like rear end is pretty effective at backing into the sand or soil quickly. Wonder if that’s the evolutionary advantage of a smooth, soft shell?

    I really like the regal pose.

    There’s no point of reference – how big was Henry?

    • Sorry about the absence of a size reference. His shell was just slightly bigger than a 50 cent piece. I assume you’re right about the smooth shell, though I don’t know if there are other advantages gained by it as well.

  2. I’m surprised Henry did not like your kids offering. I had a half dollar size soft shell turtle that would eat raw ground beef right out of my hand. You are right about wild animals being best left in nature. It is fun to keep them for a few days, but best to return them from where they came. Some day when your kids are older they may see a huge turtle sitting on a log while canoeing and wonder if it is their Henry.


  3. I live in North Florida and saw my very first softshell turtle last summer on the University of North Florida campus, where I worked. Seeing as so few of my coworkers had ever seen one, we simply referred to it as the “Loch Ness” turtle, since it would stick its neck out of the water before we’d ever see its shell. Quite an interesting looking turtle if you’re not expecting to find something like that!

  4. I enjoyed this very much, as I love turtles/tortoises/terrapins. Maybe 60 years ago (!) a friend had a softshell turtle from the Big Nemaha River near my hometown. It was certainly bigger than Henry, maybe like the palm of my hand today. I envied this friend her turtle; her father, a schoolbus driver, fished on the Nemaha and saw such creatures, whereas my dad, a farmer, never did go fishing. Our farm, however, had snapping turtles! Thanks for the charming story and photos!

  5. This is so awesome, where did you find him??? I spent all day on the Platte River south of Omaha yesterday looking for Softshell turtles and didn’t find a single one! I’ve heard you can follow their tracks under the sand and find them, but I had no such luck!


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