There are about 30 different species of softshell turtle worldwide. They range in size from 7 inches (about 17 cm) to 3 feet (about 1 meter) in length, and can be found in freshwater and brackish habitats. Softshell turtles belong to the family Trionychidae, which consists of two main subfamilies. One of these subfamilies, Cyclanorbinae, contains only a few species in Africa and Asia, while the other, Trionychinae, is more diverse and can be found in Africa, Asia, and North America. These turtles are popular as pets and are also an item of cuisine in parts of Asia and the southeastern U.S.
Softshell turtles are named for their soft shells, which lack the bony plating, or scutes, found in other turtles. Although a diverse group, softshell turtles share many characteristics and habits. Most live in fresh water, such as slow-moving rivers and lakes, though some can survive in brackish conditions. The softshell turtle will burrow into mud or sediment and hide the bulk of its body while waiting for its prey, usually a small fish or crustacean. Its long neck and pointed snout allow it to breathe air while in this camouflaged position.
The smallest softshell turtle is the Chinese softshell, Pelodiscus sinensis, although some North American varieties are fairly small as well. On the other side of the spectrum is the Yangtze giant softshell turtle Rafetus swinhoei, also known as Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, which can measure up to 3 feet (about 1 meter) in carapace length and weigh 300 pounds (about 136 kilograms). This giant turtle was thought to be extinct in the wild until 2008, when a wild specimen was discovered in Vietnam.
Rafetus swinhoei had previously been popular as a food item in East Asian countries, a fact which partially accounts for its dwindling numbers. Pelodiscus sinensis is still commonly eaten as a delicacy in some parts of the world, often as part of a stew. The U.S. species Apalone ferox, known as the Florida softshell, was also harvested frequently until 2009, when restrictions were put into place to prevent overharvesting.
Smaller types of softshell turtle are popular as pets due to their manageable size. Potential pet species include members of the genus Apalone, found in North America, as well as Pelodiscus sinensis and other small Asian varieties. Softshells may be kept in an indoor aquarium or outdoors in a pond, as space permits, and must be fed a carnivorous diet. They may be purchased at a pet store or caught in the wild.