Turtle Identification Guide


This identification guide is based on color, pattern and other physical characteristics. Each turtle identification page has two options, A and B follow the options through the sections.

A. - Front limbs shaped like flippers...... Click Here - Section 2 (Sea Turtles)

B. - Front limbs not shaped like flippers...... Click Here - Section 6


What is a scute?
A scute is a large epidermal scale or plate found on turtles and other reptiles.

A - Shell without scutes...Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)

B - Bony shell covered with scutes ...Click here - Section 3


A - The 1st vertebral scute is triangular, 4 pleural scutes per side ...Click Here - Section 4

B - The 1st vertebral scute is squarish, 5 pleural scutes per side ...Click Here - Section 5


A - Two pairs of prefrontal scales on top of head ...Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)

B - One pair of prefrontal scales on top of head ...Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)


A - Large ovoid plate on the top (dorsum) of head, usually 3 (sometimes 4) inframarginal scutes on bridge, no pores in bridge scutes ...Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)

B - Large ovoid plate on the top (dorsum) of head absent, 4 or 5 inframarginal scutes, pores present in bridge scutes ...Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii)


A - Small, cross-shaped plastron, long tail at least 1/2 the length of the shell, tail has a series of saw-tooth tubercles ...Eastern Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina serpentina)

A - Plastron covers most of the ventral surface of turtle, not distinctly cross-shaped, short tail less than one half the length of the shell, tail without dorsal tubercles ...Click Here - Section 7


A - Shell soft and pliable, without large scutes;  snout elongated with nostrils at tip ...Eastern Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifer spinifer)

B - Shell hard with large scutes; snout not elongated; both upper and lower jaws beaklike ...... Click Here - Section 8


A - Plastron with 11 scutes; posterior border of pectoral scute located anterior to the anterior margin of the bridge ...... Click Here - Section 9

B - Plastron with 12 scutes; posterior margin  of pectoral scute located posterior to anterior margin of bridge, usually in contact with marginal scutes ...Click Here - Section 12


A - Triangular pectoral scute on plastron; no visible skin between scutes ...Click Here - Section 10

B - Squarish pectoral scute on plastron; some whitish skin visible between plastral scutes ... Click Here - Section 11


Carapace (top shell)

Plastron (bottom shell)

A - Two oblique white to yellow stripes on the side of the head (lower one may be incomplete); upper stripe extends from the eye to tip of snout; 3 faint stripes visible on the dorsum of the carapace ...Striped Mud Turtle (Kinosternon baurii)

B - White to yellowish mottling on the side of head; light stripe, if present, does not extend from the eye to tip of snout; no light stripes on carapace ...Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum subrubrum)


A - Two distinct whitish stripes on each side of head originating on snout; 1 pair of fleshy barbels (tubercles) on chin and 1 pair on neck ...Eastern Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)

B - Head and neck with numerous, thin, black-and-yellow irregular stripes (some may be broken) on grayish head originating behind eye; a single pair of barbels (tubercles) on chin ...Stripe-necked Musk Turtle (Sternotherus minor peltifer)




A - Feet elephant-like, without webbing between toes; plastron hinged and moveable, allowing complete enclosure of the turtle in shell ...... Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)

B - Feet not elephant-like, with webbing between toes, lobes of plastron immovable (hinge absent) ...Click Here - Section 13


A - Carapace with highly sculptured pyramids of growth laminae in pleural scutes; keel present throughout life; plastron yellow with black blotches on posterolateral corners of scutes; tail of hatchling about as long as carapace ...Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta)

B - Carapace without raised sculptured areas in pleural scutes; carapace keel present or absent; hatchling tail length is less than the carapace length ...Click Here - Section 14


A - Head and neck when stretched is at least as long as the plastron ...Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia)

B - Length of head and neck less than the length of the plastron ...Click Here - Section 15


A - Carapace with sets of concentric grooves and/or black to brown concentric circles in each scute; head, neck and legs with numerous small black spots on a soft grayish skin ...... Northern Diamond-backed Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin terrapin)

B - Carapace without a single set of concentric circles or grooves in each scute; head and neck striped or with one to several spots or patches; legs striped or without markings ...Click Here - Setion 16


A - Posterior margin of carapace not serrated, but smooth ...Click Here - Section 17

B - Posterior margin of carapace serrated ...Click Here - Section 19


A - Upper jaw notched at midline and bordered on each side by small cusps; light transverse lines across carapace ...Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta picta)

B - Upper jaw lacks notch at midline and small cusps; carapace plain brown or black with spots ...Click Here - Section 18


A - Keel-less carapace black with a variable number of yellow to white spots; head usually with small orange patch behind eye ...Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata)

B - Keeled carapace brown without markings; head and neck plain except for a large orange to reddish patch on each side behind eye ...Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii)


A - Head and neck with more than 15 narrow yellow stripes on a greenish background; a single triangular yellow patch behind eye on each side of the head ...Northern Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica)

B - 15 or fewer prominent stripes on neck; head patches elongated, bar-shaped or absent ...Click Here - Section 20


A - Each posterior marginal scute of carapace notched at midline; head and neck with a single yellow patch, a single red patch or various combinations of both behind each eye; plastron of adults and juveniles with 2 or more black spots (blotches), 1 per scute ...

Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)


Yellow-bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta)


Cumberland Slider (Trachemys scripta troosti)

B - Posterior marginal scutes not notched at midpoint; head and neck with white to yellow stripes; plastron with markings along seams or immaculate ...... Click Here - Section 21




A - Carapace usually with a predominate, vertical red stripe in each pleural scute; upper jaw notched at anterior midline with a tooth-like cusp on either side; single light middorsal stripe on the top of snout bisecting a thin-lined, arrowhead-shaped pattern (prefrontal arrow) ...Northern Red-bellied Cooter (Pseudemys rubriventris)

B - Carapace with yellowish lines forming bands, bars, or ocelli; upper jaw weakly notched at midpoint or notch absent; tooth-like cusps very small or absent; prefrontal arrow absent ...Click Here - Section 22


A - Pleural scutes with irregular, partial ocelli, sometimes enclosing smaller, complete circles; backwards C-shaped mark on second pleural scute; Greater than 11 head and neck stripes; dark markings along plastral seams (faded in adults) ...Eastern River Cooter (Pseudemys concinna concinna)

B - Pleural scutes with vertical bands and horizontal bars; less than 11 head and neck stripes; plastron immaculate ...Coastal Plain Cooter (Pseudemys concinna floridana)

This online turtle identification key is based on the identification key by Joe Mitchell as found in his book - Mitchell, Joseph C. 1994. The Reptiles of Virginia. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. 352 pages.

Last update: 03/19/2017

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