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Mud Turtles of Arizona

Mud turtles are small (up to 7 inches in length), semi-aquatic turtles with oval-shaped shells in the family Kinosternidae. Turtles in this family have glands on the sides of their bodies that emit a foul-smelling musk when they are disturbed. Mud turtles have one or two hinges on their plastron that allow them to close their shell tightly. Being omnivorous, mud turtles eat snails, aquatic invertebrates, tadpoles, and carrion, but they will also consume some plant matter. There are three species of mud turtles that are found in and near creeks, rivers, lakes, stock tanks, and ciénegas in central and southeastern Arizona. Mud turtles can be relatively common in their preferred habitats

Mud turtles are sexually dimorphic; males have a concave plastron, and a long spine-tipped tail. Females have a flat plastron and a short tail.

During hot, dry periods, they aestivate underground in burrows in the mud along the water's edge; they can remain underground for more than a year during prolonged drought conditions. They also hibernate underground during the winter. Although aquatic, mud turtles are able to travel great distances over land in search of water, an ability that proves useful in arid habitats. 

Click on a link below or scroll down to learn about Arizona's mud turtle species and additional information.

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A ciénegas occupied by mud turtles. Arizona Game and Fish Department photo.


Arizona Mud Turtle (Kinosternon arizonense)

AZ mud turtle
Photo by Randy Babb.

Natural History

The Arizona mud turtle has a yellowish-brown carapace and a yellow plastron. It reaches about 6 inches in length. The neck and throat are yellow or cream, and the neck has small tubercles. It is limited to south-central Arizona and extreme north-central Mexico. It is diurnal, but becomes more nocturnal during the summer monsoon season. Favorite prey items of the Arizona mud turtle are tadpoles, frogs, and toads, but it also eats invertebrates.


The Arizona mud turtle is limited in Arizona to the south-central part of the state, on the Tohono O’odham Nation


This species is usually encountered in ephemeral bodies of water, such as stock tanks, pools, or roadside ditches.


Yellow Mud Turtle (Kinosternon flavescens)

yellow mud turtle
Adult yellow mud turtle. Photo by Tom Brennan.

Natural History

The yellow mud turtle has a brown to yellowish-brown, flattened carapace and a yellow plastron. It reaches about 6.5 inches in total length. The neck is yellow or cream and has small tubercles. Its preferred habitat in Arizona is shallow pools, including stock tanks, with mud or sand bottoms. The yellow mud turtle is diurnally active, and eats insects, frogs, carrion and plant matter. 


In Arizona, the yellow mud turtle is limited to the extreme southeastern corner of the state, including Cochise and Graham Counties. Nationwide it is found from Nebrasksa south to Mexico, and west to Colorado.


Inhabits still or slow-moving waters, including ponds, stock tanks, and slow-moving streams.


Sonora Mud Turtle (Kinosternon sonoriense)

Sonoran mud
Adult Sonoran mud turtle. Photo by Jeff Lovich.

Natural History
The Sonora mud turtle has a keeled, olive-brown carapace. The throat and neck are brown with yellow reticulations and there are prominent tubercles under the chin. It reaches approximately 7 inches in length.  Although aquatic, the Sonora mud turtle may be seen on land as it travels between bodies of water. It is usually diurnally active, but becomes more nocturnal during the monsoon season. It feeds on invertebrates and small vertebrates, including fish and amphibians, but it also eats carrion and some plant matter.

Sonoran mud
Adult Sonoran mud turtle. Photo by Jim Rorabaugh.

mud turtle
Juvenile Sonoyta mud turtle. Photo by Daren Riedle.

The Sonora mud turtle has the most extensive range of the three mud turtles in Arizona. They are found in streams, ponds, and stock tanks in central and southern Arizona. Their range also extends into western New Mexico and north-central Mexico. There are two subspecies in Arizona: Kinosternon sonoriense sonoriense, which is commonly referred to as the Sonora mud turtle and is found in most of the species’ Arizona range, and Kinosternon sonoriense longifemorale, commonly referred to as the Sonoyta mud turtle and found only in Quitobaquito Pond in Arizona and a few isolated sites in Sonora, Mexico. 

This species can be commonly found in a wide variety of water bodies, including rivers, streams, stock tanks, ponds, and reservoirs.


Because they require consistent sources of water, mud turtles are affected by factors that influence water levels, including groundwater pumping, drought, agricultural pesticide use, intensive cattle grazing, and the introduction of exotic vegetation. Also, because the streams and perennial pools in which they reside are often isolated, populations are vulnerable to local extinctions if the habitat is destroyed. Research is needed on mud turtle reproductive biology and survival to determine minimum sizes for populations to be considered viable.  

dry river bed
This dry streambed illustrates the threats mud turtles face from intensive groundwater pumping and pollution. Photo by Phil Rosen.


The Sonoyta mud turtle, because it exists in vulnerable, isolated populations in such a small area, is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, meaning its status is still under consideration. A hunting license is required to collect mud turtles in Arizona. 

A hunting license is required to collect all other mud turtles in Arizona.

How You Can Help

Keep wild turtles wild. Do not collect turtles from the wild. Removing turtles from the wild depletes natural turtle populations, which can lead to local extinctions in species like mud turtles that reproduce slowly. 

Keep captive turtles captive. Do not release your captive turtles, and make sure that your turtle’s enclosure is secure so that it cannot escape. Captive turtles that are released into the wild can become established, compete for resources, and displace resident turtles. If released, captive turtles can also spread disease that could kill resident turtles.

Practice responsible OHV use. Using off-highway vehicles (OHVs) off of designated trails can trample vegetation and lead to soil erosion, which degrades the water quality of streams and rivers where mud turtles reside.   

Participate in the Sponsor-a-Turtle program. The Arizona Game and Fish Department Turtles Project utilizes technical equipment such as radio-telemetry tags, GPS units, and hoop traps to survey and monitor turtle populations statewide. By donating to the Turtles Project, you will help project biologists purchase this gear so that they may continue to plan and implement conservation and management. Click here to download the Sponsor-a-Turtle program brochure.

Contact Information


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Did You Know?
A hunting license is required to capture many of Arizona’s reptile species, and a fishing license is required to capture many of Arizona’s amphibian species (combination hunting/fishing licenses are available).Protected species, such as the desert tortoise and the ornate box turtle, are not allowed to be collected even with a license. Click here for information on purchasing a license.
Mud Turtle Downloads line
NOTE: The following files are PDFs and require the free Adobe Acrobat Reader.
- Population Ecology of the Sonora Mud Turtle at Quitobaquito Pond
AZGFD Turtle Pages line
- Turtle Conservation and Management
- Desert tortoises
- Captive desert tortoise care
- Ornate box turtles
- Painted turtles
- Nonnative turtles
Related AZGFD Info
- Heritage Fund
- State Wildlife Grants
- Arizona Reptile and Amphibian Regulations
- Wildlife News
- Watchable Wildlife
- Nongame Species Management
- Living With Venomous Reptiles
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External Links line
- Phoenix Herpetological Society
- Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC)
- Southwest PARC
- Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group
- Turtle Survival Alliance
- NatureServe

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