Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

The View from Mudsock Heights: Old Stinkpot was a Turtle, and He Briefly Was Mine

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 2:37 AM

The shape was tiny but unmistakable to anyone who has spent years watching for turtles while driving.

I do not know whether the identification of roadside critters, alive and dead, is a skill that everyone develops. It came to me early on and is now so automatic that I couldn’t stop it if I tried.

The practice dates back to my childhood, when I had the good fortune of knowing — “working with” is probably too strong — the biologist Dr. Max Nickerson. In addition to his substantial research, he was proprietor of Max Allen’s Zoological Gardens, on Route 54 on the way to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. (The highway is now moved and the place is closed, alas.)

Among his projects was a study of cross-breeding among three-toed box turtles and ornate box turtles, two varieties common in Missouri. For this study to be statistically useful, he had to round up a whole bunch of turtles. The pre-teenaged I was among the turtle collectors involved.

So anytime I was riding in a car with anyone, the poor driver could expect to hear “Turtle!” shouted by me, whereupon the car would stop and I’d jump out and pick up the turtle I’d seen. In the 60 miles from my home to Max Allen’s on a typical warm spring day, I could sometimes gather two dozen or more turtles.

While they weren’t part of the study, I was especially delighted if I found something that was not a box turtle. This would happen in the late spring especially, which is when the aquatic turtles crawl out on dry land to lay their eggs. Then we’d find snapping turtles, of course, and the ornate but unfriendly painted turtles, and occasionally something a little more exotic.

In the years since, I’ve made a practice, where it is reasonably safe to do so, of stopping to rescue turtles crossing the road. And over the years I’ve come to know a variety of turtles from numerous states. When I was a kid, I had a bunch of terraria and aquaria and at any given time would have 20 or so turtles swimming and walking around, from Florida chicken turtles to southwestern desert tortoises. But now I’m like the dog that chases a car — what would I do if I caught it? I look at the creature, identify it, maybe make a picture or two of it, and transport it to a place where it is not likely to be run over.
Which brings us to that unmistakable small profile that we zipped past last week.

It was a stretch of road with concrete barriers on both sides. A turtle there would have to have done some walking. Yet there, just entering the right lane from the shoulder, was a mud turtle of some sort.

We drove to the next turnoff, turned around and drove back, turned around again and pulled over. I’m still pretty quick at jumping out, grabbing a turtle, and getting back into the car to zoom away before becoming a road hazard myself.

In a couple of minutes, the little turtle was in our possession, in a plastic bag from a store, which would be sufficient to get it home.

The little dark brown reptile was a musk turtle, known to scientists as Sternotherus odoratus and commonly called a “stinkpot.” This, as our catch quickly made evident, is because the tiny thing is the skunk of the turtle world. It exudes a foul-smelling substance when bothered.

The stinkpot isn’t at all rare, though you normally don’t see them on dry land away from water except in the spring, when the females are laying their eggs. They are related to snapping turtles, but their shell is domed, more like a box turtle, and they are very small, rarely reaching a shell size of four inches. They are as pugnacious as snapping turtles, and like a snapper their heads are disproportionately large.

It was late in the day, so the thing to do was bring it home and find a place to turn it loose the following morning. I put together a little pool where it could swim, but overnight gave it a box of dirt, in case egg-laying was what it had in mind. I’ve had turtles denied dry land lay their eggs in the water, which kills the eggs.

The next day it was time to take the little thing to the pond by Matt and Robin’s cabin. It is far away from any big roads.

There is something joyous about watching a briefly captive turtle figure out with its sub-pea-sized brain that it is now free. I do not think that turtles have the capacity to frolic, but when they zoom away through the water they give a respectable imitation of frolicking.

Our good deed done, we marched up the hill, wandering into a spider web or two, and I remembered something my companion said the night before, shortly after the turtle had demonstrated how it got its name:

“Well. The stinkpot and the crackpot.”

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at

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1 comments posted so far.

Re: The View from Mudsock Heights: Old Stinkpot was a Turtle, and He Briefly Was Mine

Ah - you have such a good heart but it is not prudent to move a turtle away from its habitat. best to move the turtle to safety. across the road or wherever it was heading. Many are killed by others when displaced to a new territory and desert tortoises have been know to walk for miles trying to get back to their original habitats.

So do a good deed everyone. Make sure that the turtles is heading in the safe direction - the same way it was going because if you try to turn it around it will just turn back the way it was headed.

American Tortoise Rescue

Posted by American Tortoise Rescue - Aug 24, 2009 | 3:01 AM