No. 36–Surprise…Surprise

One of the neat things about my job is that I never know what I’m going to learn next. That was brought home to me on September 5th. I was outside enjoying a fresh breeze and the shade of an oak across from the Estuarium while collecting my thoughts for this column.

Glancing down Paris Ave., I spied my friend and Port Royal Elementary teacher John O’Connell – Mr. “O” to the kids – engaged in conversation with two women around a little red wagon he had in tow. Needing to talk to him about an ongoing project with the school, I waited till he eventually began to haul the wagon my way.

The wagon was behind him as he approached blocking my view of its contents. Just as he swung the wagon between us a creature bolted, filliped in mid air and landed with a thud at our feet. I admit I jumped as did Mr. O but we recovered in time to grab the flailing, long necked, hissing beast and return it to the wagon.

It was the first time I’d laid eyes on one but I knew I was staring at a soft-shell turtle. She had apparently wandered from the small wetland on 14th St. to be found, to the surprise and delight of the children, on the playground at the school.

Okay… now what?… John wanted to know. I happened to be thinking the same thing. As fate would have it, a lightening whelk that had been with me for years had succumbed to old age the week before leaving an empty tank. It would be cramped but sufficient quarters for the 12″ long turtle until she could be released.

The first order of business after getting our transient settled in was to identify the species and begin filling the soft shell turtle gap in my knowledge bank. The information that follows was gleaned from the internet over the ensuing days.

There are 25 species of soft shells with ranges in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and North America. Of the three US species, two may be found in South Carolina. They are the spiny soft shell, Apalone spiniferaha with small spike like projections across the front of its carapace and the Florida soft shell, Apalone ferox which found its way to the playground. The range smooth soft shell, Apalone mutica is limited to the central states.

They’re called soft shells because the perimeter of the carapace is flesh rather than bone as in other turtles and is covered with a leathery skin instead of scutes. The plastron (under side) may be either cartilaginous or bone that is not fully calcified.

Almost exclusively fresh water creatures, some are able to tolerate brackish water, they are shy of humans and rarely seen. Long necks and an elongated snorkel like proboscis allow them to bury in the substrate of shallows undetected by the casual observer.

The turtles are omnivorous feeding on a wide range of aquatic invertebrates, fish, amphibians, insects and plant life. The larger members of the family (females up to 36”) are known to snatch ducklings from the surface. Males have been known to but seldom exceed 12” in length.

Soft shells are a niche market in the exotic pet trade and, I’m sorry to say, eaten with great relish in the home ranges of some. It is also, no surprise, to be found dried, shredded, powdered and offered to cure what ills yah in oriental apothecary shops and on the internet.

With a sense that it belonged in the wild, there was never any thought of adding our wayward guest to the Estuarium collection. My research bore out that sentiment. It would have taken a very large tank, expensive filter system and roughly a quarter of our current display space to properly house the animal.

Having learned what I could from and about “Ole’ Softy”, kids have a way with names; it was with considerable satisfaction and the help of forty or so PRES students that she was returned to the wild in Port Royal’s bird sanctuary. Look out ducks!