Species At Risk

Spiny Softshell

(Apalone spinifera)


Spiny Softshell
Spiny Softshell occurrences map


The Spiny Softshell is a medium-large freshwater turtle that is easily recognized by its shell, which is round, rather flat, leathery and can reach up to 54 centimetres long. It is also distinguished by its snorkel-like snout. Unlike any other Ontario turtles, this species has a soft shell. The shell is olive or tan in colour with dark blotches and tiny spine projections along the front edge. The body is usually olive, brown or grey in colour.


In Canada, the Spiny Softshell is found only in Quebec and southwestern Ontario in the Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie and western Lake Ontario watersheds. The majority of Spiny Softshells in Ontario are found in the Thames and Sydenham rivers and at two sites in Lake Erie.

The size of the home range of this turtle depends on availability of habitat features such as nesting and hibernation sites. Some turtles travel up to 30 kilometres in a year from one part of their home range to another.


Spiny Softshells are highly aquatic turtles that rarely travel far from water. They are found primarily in rivers and lakes but also in creeks and even ditches and ponds near rivers. Key habitat requirements are open sand or gravel nesting areas, shallow muddy or sandy areas to bury in, deep pools for hibernation, areas for basking, and suitable habitat for crayfish and other food species. These habitat features may be distributed over an extensive area, as long as the intervening habitat doesn’t prevent the turtles from traveling between them.


The most significant threat to Canadian populations of Spiny Softshell is habitat degradation, particularly due to riverbank stabilization, development along shorelines, changes in water levels, dams and recreation. Nest mortality can be very high due to human recreational activities at nest sites and nest predation by raccoons and foxes. Development and recreation may also be blocking access to nesting, hibernation, feeding and basking sites. This turtle suffers high mortality due to collisions with motorboats, trapping and incidental mortality from fisheries.


The Spiny Softshell is protected under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act and the federal Species at Risk Act. This species has also been designated as a Specially Protected Reptile under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act.

What You Can Do to Help the Spiny Softshell

  • The Ministry of Natural Resources tracks species at risk such as the Spotted Turtle. The Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas collects observations of all Ontario reptiles and amphibians. Submit your observations to either of these databases at nhic.mnr.gov.on.ca/species/species_report.cfm and www.ontarionature.org/atlas. Photographs are important to help confirm the identification of species and are always helpful.
  • Because the Spiny Softshell captures food by hiding in the mud of shallow waters, it is at risk of collision with boats coming in to shore. Softshell turtles also often travel across the middle of lakes or bays. Please proceed carefully if you know there are Spiny Softshells in the area.
  • Good nesting sites appear to be in limited supply. It you own riverfront property, maintain a buffer of open beach above the waterline. Try not to disturb exposed sandbars or sand/gravel shorelines, especially during May to October.
  • Although nests of species at risk turtles are protected, poachers will take eggs for the pet or food trade. Never buy turtles that have been caught in the wild and never buy a native species of any kind that’s being sold as a pet.
  • As with all wildlife, don’t disturb nests, young or adults. Be respectful and observe from a distance.
  • Report any illegal activity related to plants and wildlife to 1-877-TIPS-MNR (847-7667).
  • Private land owners have an important role to play in species at risk recovery. If you find a Spiny Softshell on your property, you may be eligible for stewardship programs that support the protection and recovery of species at risk and their habitats.
  • Volunteer with your local nature club or provincial park to participate in surveys or stewardship work focused on species at risk.
  • Visit the Ontario Nature Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas (www.ontarionature.org/atlas) or Toronto Zoo Adopt-a-Pond website (www.torontozoo.com/Adoptapond) to learn more about Ontario’s rare turtles, their habitat and related conservation initiatives.

Did you know?

The Spiny Softshell turtle captures crayfish and molluscs by partially burying itself underwater in the sand or mud and snatching unsuspecting prey. Its snorkel-like snout allows it to take a breath of air while submerged.

Did you know?

Spiny Softshells hibernate underwater in sand during the winter months. They can go without breathing for the entire winter and absorb small amounts of oxygen through their mouth and cloaca (the posterior opening that serves as the common outlet for the intestinal, urinary and reproductive tracts in reptiles).

Did you know?

This turtle is sometimes referred to as the “pancake” or “leatherback” turtle due to the unique appearance of its shell.

The Endangered Species Act

Contact your local ministry office

Often the best source of local information on species at risk is your nearest ministry office. Call with your questions or concerns.