Wild Thing: Big Bend Mud Turtle
Limited water is a big hurdle for a threatened turtle.
By Andy Gluesenkamp
The vast Chihuahuan Desert landscape of the Big Bend region seems an unlikely place to find a turtle, but the Rio Grande is home to several species (such as the Rio Grande cooter, Big Bend slider, spiny softshell turtle and red-eared slider), and you may even spy a desert box turtle ambling across a lonesome caliche road.
The most unusual turtle in this region is the rough-footed mud turtle, also known as the Big Bend mud turtle or Chihuahuan mud turtle. This small turtle (adults reach about 7.5 inches) ranges from Texas to the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. It is highly aquatic and prefers rivers, streams and lakes. Of course, water is in short supply in the Big Bend, so this species is known to inhabit only a short stretch of creek and a handful of cattle tanks fed by springs and wells in Presidio County. Most Texas populations are dependent on human-modified habitats (cattle tanks) that have largely replaced historic habitats (flowing streams).
The rough-footed mud turtle sometimes shares its home with another species of mud turtle: the yellow mud turtle (Kinosternon flavescens). Both species have peaked carapaces as juveniles, hinged plastrons (belly plates) and fleshy barbels under the chin. The rough-footed mud turtle has a single, V-shaped head shield. The male has nominal scaly patches on the hind legs and a relatively long tail with scattered fleshy spines. The turtles have large heads for their size (they are the smallest species of turtle in the Trans-Pecos region) and a prominent overbite in profile view.
Numerous threats to this species exist. In addition to the inherent fragility of having few populations that occur in isolated pockets of habitat, free-ranging cattle have affected creek habitat, and human alteration of tank sites may have had unintended consequences on turtle populations.
Much of the mud turtle habitat in Texas is adjacent to roadways, railways and a proposed pipeline. How infrastructure affects mud turtle populations is unknown. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is currently funding research on the movement and behavior of mud turtles, using radio telemetry to track individual turtle movements, home range size, seasonal activity and habitat use. This information will help determine the nature and severity of threats facing this species.
In addition, the Texas Department of Transportation has applied turtle-specific conservation measures to sites on state property, and local landowners are engaging in conservation and restoration practices to help ensure that this rare Texas turtle lives on, thriving in the most unlikely of places.
Common Name: Rough-footed mud turtle
Scientific Name: Kinosternon hirtipes
Habitat: Permanent water bodies in the Big Bend region, now primarily cattle tanks in upland mesquite grasslands
Diet: Crustaceans, snails, aquatic insects, worms, fish and amphibians
Did You Know? In Texas, the threatened rough-footed mud turtle is found only in southern Presidio County.
See more wildlife articles on TP&W magazine's Texas wildlife page