My husband has gotten interested in mushrooms. Periodically, he crisscrosses the pasture, head down, looking for fungi of all sorts. Recently, on such a foray, he noticed the brown cap of a mushroom peeking out from the low grass. He bent down to get a closer look and he saw that the mushroom had …LEGS! 

Oh my goodness! It wasn’t a mushroom at all but a tiny turtle! He assumed it was a Red-eared Slider. We have had several of these common turtles in our ponds. We had hoped they would breed, and it appeared now that they had. He picked the creature up and started to return it to the water…it was a good 30 feet away from the pond and heading away from it. It was likely to dehydrate before it reached the next body of water more than half a mile away.

In hand, he noticed that the turtle was quite small, smaller than any baby Red-eared Slider he had ever seen. Instead of releasing it right away, Robert brought it to me to examine. It didn’t take us long to conclude that it was NOT a Red-eared Slider. The carapace was dome-shaped, unlike a slider’s platter-like shell. It had stripes on its neck but no sign of the red “ear”. The patterning on the carapace and the plastron (the underside of the shell) did not match the markings a slider would have. We even wondered if it was a tortoise, a land-dweller, instead of an aquatic turtle.

However, its feet appeared to be designed for swimming. We put it in a shallow basin of water, and it swam. So, it was an aquatic species. While we watched it move around the basin, it occurred to me that it might be hungry. I knew that most turtles are vegetarian, so I placed two nice leaves of lettuce — one red and one green — in the water. Leaf lettuce is considered to be an excellent food for baby turtles according to turtle-keeping websites. 

We put a rock in the basin so the tiny turtle could climb out of the water if it wanted to, and we placed an incandescent lamp over the rock area to provide a warm spot for basking. The little creature ignored the lettuce, the rock and the artificial sunshine.

Meanwhile, we perused the field guides and internet sites to see if we could identify this tiny reptile. The yellow edges to the carapace, the stripes on the neck and the big head (relatively speaking) led us to conclude that it was a Common Musk Turtle. Reptilesmagazine.com said that Common Musk Turtles “are small turtles with a maximum carapace length of 4 to 4.5 inches. Males are slightly larger than females. Common Musk Turtle hatchlings are the smallest North American turtle, being only slightly larger than a penny.”

Well, our little guy fit the hatchling size, for sure! But what about the rest of the name? Common? I had never seen one of these turtles before, have you? Still, Common Musk Turtles are said to have a range over most of the eastern half of the United States. They are found in slow-moving sections of rivers and streams as well as lakes and ponds; that is, just about all forms of fresh-water habitat. So, I guess if you knew how to look for them, you would find them.

But musk? What is that about? According to the website, this species of turtle can exude a foul-smelling fluid from the edges of its plastron, particularly if it is “frightened or startled”. This musky substance gives the turtle its alternative name: Stinkpot. Fortunately for us, the baby we were handling must have been too young to produce musk.

Once we had identified the turtle, we thought it might be interesting to keep it in captivity for a while. I mean, it was CUTE. And we worried that if we put it back in the pond, it might try to “walk” again. Also, the Great Blue Heron that feeds on the minnows in our pond might decide the tidbit was dinner. In reality, the turtle would be no more than an hors d’ourve for the heron. The bird could swallow the turtle in one bite (much like we might grab an olive before dinner).

However, to raise a wild turtle, we needed to feed it. The lettuce was a no-go. Common Musk Turtles feed primarily on aquatic insects and invertebrates. We tried a few flakes of fish food. It showed no interest, and the flakes gradually dissolved and turned the water pink. So we gave the turtle a fresh basin of water and went back to the internet. The websites suggested “earthworms, cut-up fish and shrimp, crickets and bloodworms.”

I dug up my garden until I found a tiny earthworm. I placed this tasty morsel in front of the turtle. The turtle swam away. I maneuvered the worm in front of the turtle several times. Each time, the turtle ignored the food. We made sure the water was warm enough, that a basking rock was available and left the wiggly worm in the water. I expected the turtle to eat it overnight.

But it didn’t. Worried that we were stressing the hatchling by keeping it in captivity, we decided to return it to the pond. Yes, it would have to avoid being eaten. And yes, it could attempt to migrate overland to another pond. Maybe that was normal behavior for this species; how did its parents get to our pond in the first place? I have to think that musk turtles have a genetic urge to disperse. 

We decided to let nature take its course. We released the tiny turtle. It crawled off my hand, swam to the bottom and slipped under a soggy fallen leaf. I hope it is thriving there and that I might see it again…perhaps when it reaches a whopping four inches long!

Texas Master Naturalist Columnist: Brush Country Backyard