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Nonnative Turtles of Arizona

Report 4-inch turtle violations. 
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) administers a ban on the sale of turtles and tortoises smaller than 4 inches because of the risk of salmonella infection associated with small turtles. 

To report a vendor selling 4-inch turtles or tortoises:

  • In Maricopa County, call the Maricopa County Health Department's complaint line at

    (602) 506-6616. 

To find out more about turtles and the law, see How You Can Help at the bottom of this page, or visit the complete FDA's 4-inch turtle regulation.


A spiny softshell, a nonnative turtle in Arizona, captured at a Phoenix pond. Photo by Mike Barker.

Species are considered nonnative when they are introduced into areas beyond their native ranges. Arizona has at least three species of established, nonnative turtles which are likely the result of the escape or intentional release of pets. Scroll below to find descriptions of Arizona's nonnative turtles.

Not all introduced turtles become established. An established nonnative species is one that has a self-sustaining, free-living population that has the potential to expand. For a species to become established outside of its native range, it often has characteristics that give it a competitive edge against native species. For example, aquatic turtles that are established outside their range are often common in the pet trade where they are purchased and moved around by people. Often these species can lay many eggs, so they can easily reproduce. They often have a large native distribution, allowing them to adapt to many different types of habitat and climates. 

Established nonnatives can have many negative effects on the environment. For example, they have the potential to harm native species through competition for food or habitat, or through direct predation. Nonnative species may also reach unnaturally high abundances due to a lack of natural predators or because they are filling an open niche in their nonnative habitat. Finally, nonnative species may become overabundant and then are more likely to expand their range even further.    

Visitors may have noticed an abundance of turtles basking on the logs in the pond in front of the Phoenix Zoo in Papago Park. These are nonnative turtles and are here because people release their unwanted pet turtles into the wild. People give little thought to the amount of time and money required to keep an aquatic pet turtle, which can live 10 or more years if cared for properly. As a hatchling turtle grows into a large turtle, it outgrows its aquarium, and if kept indoors, it requires a lot of time and maintenance to keep the aquarium clean and inoffensive. Many people believe they are doing their pet a favor by releasing it. If it does survive being released into a foreign environment, it may compete with native species for resources or introduce diseases and parasites to other turtles. 

Each spring, the Arizona Game and Fish Department Turtles Project conducts a “Turtle Trapping” event, where nonnative female turtles are trapped and removed from the pond in front of the Phoenix Zoo. The purpose of this event is to reduce the breeding of these nonnative turtles, which decreases the likelihood of this population expanding into adjacent native waterways. Removed turtles are placed with the Phoenix Herpetological Society, where they can be adopted into approved homes with people who are committed to their care. Since 1999, nearly 550 nonnative turtles were captured and removed from the zoo's pond, 522 of which were females that were placed for adoption.

2008 Nonnative Turtle Trapping at The Phoenix Zoo

A tub used for holding nonnative turtles at the annual Turtle Trapping. Pond sliders are by far the most commonly captured nonnative turtles during the event. Arizona Game and Fish Department photo.


Pond Slider (Trachemys scripta)

Pond slider. Photo by Daren Riedle.

The pond slider is native to the Mississippi River drainages in the eastern United States. Because of its popularity in the pet trade, it has been exported internationally and has become one of the most widely distributed turtles in the world. It is a medium to large-sized turtle (up to 14 inches) in the family Emydidae. It is omnivorous and adapts well to urban environments. Young sliders are green with yellow stripes on the shell; adults become more drab in color. The red-eared slider subspecies of the pond slider has a characteristic red "ear" stripe on both sides of the head behind the eye. Yellow-bellied sliders, the other subspecies of the pond slider, has a bright yellow plastron and conspicuous yellow markings behind the eye.  

It can be seen basking on logs or rocks in urban ponds. In Arizona, the pond slider is established in aquatic habitats (ponds, canals, or other slow-moving bodies of water) in urban areas of Tucson, Phoenix, and Yuma, as well as several river systems around Phoenix.   

yellow belly slider
This is a yellow-bellied slider, one of the two subspecies of the pond slider. This subspecies lacks the "red ear" of the more common subspecies, the red-eared slider. Photo by Daren Riedle.
The pond slider has several characteristics that allow it to be successful in Arizona. For example, it is very common in the pet trade where it is moved around by people. It is a food generalist, so it does not have specific food items it requires to survive, which might otherwise limit its range. It is an aggressive predator, allowing it to outcompete other turtles for resources like food, water and basking sites. It has a wide native range, making it adaptable to a variety of climates. Finally, it can lay up to 30 eggs per clutch and nest multiple times in a year. It is able to reproduce successfully outside of its native range. 

Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera)

Adult spiny softshell. Photo by Jim Rorabaugh.

The spiny softshell (family Trionychidae) is an aquatic turtle with a flat shell covered in leathery skin, not scutes like most turtles. It has a long neck and a snorkel-like nose, which allow it to lie covered in mud on the bottom of shallow bodies of water with its nares above the water surface. The spiny softshell reaches 18.5 inches in length. Prey of the spiny softshell include fish, snails, and amphibians; it also eats carrion and some plant matter. They are native to the eastern United States, but are established in urban ponds, canals, irrigation ditches, slow-moving rivers and lakes in central and western Arizona.   

There are several characteristics of the spiny softshell that have allowed this nonnative species to establish itself in Arizona. It is a food generalist, so it does not have any specific requirements for food that would limit its distribution. It is an aggressive predator, meaning it can outcompete other turtles and native species for resources such as food and basking sites. It is a habitat generalist, meaning it can thrive in many different types of water bodies. Finally, it does well in human-impacted habitats, such as in suburban and urban bodies of water. 


Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina )

Adult snapping turtle. Photo by Daren Riedle.

The snapping turtle (family Chelydridae) is a large turtle (up to 19 inches) with an extremely keeled carapace, a large head with a hooked beak, and a long tail. It has powerful jaws that are capable of inflicting a painful bite. The snapping turtle is an aquatic turtle, which is rarely found out of the water. The species is native to the eastern half of the United States, but in Arizona it has become established in urban ponds and canals in Phoenix.     

Like other nonnative turtles, the snapping turtle has several traits that have allowed it to establish itself in Arizona. It is a food generalist, eating most plant and animal matter that they are able to capture, including waterfowl. It is an aggressive predator, which means it can outcompete other turtles for resources. It has a wide native range, allowing it to be adaptable to different climates. It is common in the pet trade, so the species is often moved around by people. Finally, it lays many eggs (up to 100) and is therefore a successful reproducer.

Cautionary Measures

Per Title 21, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 1240.62, a turtle less than 4 inches in length may only be purchased with a scientific, educational, or exhibitional purpose, and not by the general public as pets. 

Per Commission Order 43, there is a year-round limit of 20 per day or in possession in the aggregate live or dead for Apalone spinifera (spiny softshell), Trachemys scripta (slider), and all species of the family Chelydridae (snapping turtles) statewide, excluding those areas not open for hunting (R12-4-802). A hunting or combination license is required for take of reptiles other than softshell turtles. By law, softshell turtles are considered aquatic wildlife and a fishing or combination license is required for take. Methods of take are prescribed in R12-4-313(E). 

How You Can Help

Keep captive turtles captive. Do not release your captive turtle, and make sure it is kept in a secure enclosure to prevent escape. If you can no longer care for you turtle, contact the Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group or Phoenix Herpetological Society.   

To find facilities in surrounding states that will accept captive turtles, contact your state's wildlife agency:

California - California Department of Fish and Game (916) 445-0411

Nevada - Nevada Division of Wildlife (775) 688-1500

New Mexico - New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (505) 476-8000

Texas - Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (800) 792-1112

Utah - Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (801) 538-4700

Obey the law. The ban on the sale of small turtles was enacted to decrease cases of salmonella infections in children. Turtles, like all reptiles, carry salmonella. Humans can become infected with salmonella through contact with feces of a turtle that has salmonella. Small turtles seem to pose a high risk of salmonella infection to children because children play with and can put small turtles in their mouths. To find out more about the threat turtles pose to children, visit the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine website.

This law benefits turtles, as well. People often purchase small turtles on impulse because they are cute, but they can give little thought to the amount of work and space required to care for their turtle when it is full-grown. When a little turtle becomes large, it will outgrow its aquarium and require considerable maintenance to keep the aquarium clean and non-offensive. The owner, thinking he is doing his pet turtle a favor, might then release the turtle into the wild where it may compete with native species for resources. By requiring turtles to be larger in size before they can be purchased, the law increases the likelihood that turtle owners will be more educated before they choose a turtle as a pet. 

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.

Additional Information

Cristina Jones
Turtles Project Coordinator
(623) 236-7767

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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 are not allowed to be collected even with a license.  Click here for information on purchasing a license. 
AZGFD Turtles Pages
- Turtle Conservation and Management
- Desert tortoises
- Ornate box turtles
  Mud turtles
- Painted turtles
Related AZGFD Links
- Heritage Fund
- State Wildlife Grants
- Amphibian and Reptile Regulations
- Wildlife Center
- Wildlife News
- Watchable Wildlife
- Nongame Species Management
- Living With Venomous Reptiles
- Sign up for AZGFD eNews
External Links
- Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC)
- Southwest PARC
- Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group
- Turtle Survival Alliance
- Phoenix Herp Society
- NatureServe

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