There are thirteen officially recognized map turtle species. The Mississippi map turtle is one of the two subspecies of the false map turtle (an aquatic turtle belonging to the Emidadye family). Since they’re already a subspecies of the map turtle, the Mississippi map has no subspecies of its own.
Map turtles are sometimes also called “sawback” turtles due to the raised, saw-like appearance on the vertebral (top, or carapace) part of the shell, and here’s a fun fact for you: Mississippi map turtles are not native to the state of Mississippi, but they do get their name from the Mississippi River, which stretches through ten states, from Minnesota, south to Louisiana.
As far as aquatic turtles go, the Mississippi map is considered a medium size at its full growth. Females, however, are more dominant than males and grow to be considerably larger. Adult females have a carapace (shell) length spanning between 6 and 10 inches (15 cm to 25 cm). Males, on the other hand, grow to a carapace length between 3.5 inches and 5 inches (9 cm to 13 cm).
The average lifespan for most Mississippi maps lies somewhere between 15 and 20 years, but when kept properly in captivity, a Mississippi map turtle can live for up to 30 years or more.
Map turtles get their name because the patterns on their shells resemble that of a map. Different species and subspecies of map turtles will exhibit different patterns.
The Mississippi map turtle has a prominent ridge running along the center (vertebral) part of its carapace, or upper shell, which is serrated, like a saw, along the back edge. Shell color is brown or olive and has narrow, yellow, connected lines or circles. The plastron, or lower shell, is a light green-yellow with light brown lines that resemble wood grain running along the seams of the scutes (scales)—the tile shaped sections of shell. The wood-like lines tend to fade and become less distinct as the turtle ages.
The main difference between the Mississippi map and other map species is that Mississippi maps have bright yellow reverse-crescents that sweep under and behind both of their eyes. This curved line can be seen on top of the turtle’s head as it runs down the center and splits down each side.
Another, less reliable, way to tell if your turtle is a Mississippi map is the round pupil and solid, unbroken iris of the eye. There are exceptions of course, but Mississippi maps usually have bright colored eyes with no bar across the pupils.
Female map turtles have smaller tails but grow larger in body than their male counterparts, while males have slightly longer nails on their forelegs and tails.
Mississippi map turtles are perhaps the most striking of the aquatic turtles. However, they are notoriously difficult to keep successfully as pets. They are very nervous and wary turtles that stress easily.
In captivity, the Mississippi map requires pristine water conditions and a large enclosure. For all of these reasons, map turtles should only be kept by experienced turtle keepers. Only acquire them from reputable breeders and not from the wild.
Mississippi maps are aquatic turtles; they do just about everything while swimming, including eating. In fact, Mississippi maps will only feed when they’re in the water.
They are omnivores, but adults tend to be more carnivorous than other “slider” turtles, to the point where it’s easy to accidentally feed them too much. When map turtles are fed too much protein it can result in an unhealthy growth rate and pyramiding of the shell.
A proper map turtle’s diet begins with nutritionally balanced turtle pellets that you can find at the pet store. The turtle’s diet should be supplemented with fresh, leafy greens and healthy, low-fat proteins as well. Mississippi maps enjoy dark leafy greens and vegetables like Romaine lettuce, dandelion leaves, parsley, and spinach. As for the type of proteins you should give them, gender will be the guiding factor.
Since females tend to grow larger than males, they have larger jaws that can consume larger prey like snails and clams. Males, on the other hand, have to be fed prey like aquatic insects, crustaceans, mealworms, mollusks and fish.
While live fish can prove challenging for them to catch, Mississippi maps have no problem eating pieces of dead fish. Do not feed your Mississippi map live mealworms as there is a small risk that the worms may harm your turtle.
As a treat, and only as a treat, you can feed your turtle fresh chopped apple pieces.
Young turtles will have bigger appetites and should be fed daily. Adult Mississippi maps can be fed between 4 and 5 times per week. Since they eat in the water, place veggie leaves in the water and on the basking site, or clip them to the side of the enclosure with a rubber suction cup.
Some turtle keepers use separate feeding tanks to keep the water-quality in the main enclosure pristine, which can be a good idea depending on your available resources and space. Offer only as much food as the turtle will consume in 4-5 minutes to avoid overfeeding and obesity.
Mississippi map turtles, when kept under proper conditions, are a relatively healthy species. However, map turtles as a species are prone to health conditions if high quality, oxygen-rich water isn’t maintained. Mississippi maps will only thrive in pristine water conditions and can develop fungal infections if subjected to anything but.
Fungal infections can also be caused if your turtle doesn’t get enough natural sunlight and indoor UVB lighting. This more mild fungal infection looks like grey blotches that, if left untreated, will spread across the carapace. The good news is that most fungal infections can be treated and cured by your veterinarian along with correcting any water quality or lighting issues.
Mississippi maps, and map turtles in general, are extremely skittish, though individual exceptions do exist. They love to swim and bask in the sun but prefer to be close enough to the water to escape at a moment’s notice. Maps are friendly, community animals, though females will tend to be more dominant and should be limited in number when keeping multiples.
Because of their beautiful coloring and active, aquatic nature, map turtles are one of the most interesting turtle species to keep. Bear in the mind that they are for the experienced reptile hobbyist.
If you’re dedicated to providing your pet map the best quality of life, they will be active and entertaining to watch for years.
This type of map turtle requires a large enclosure to swim in. For one male specimen a 25-gallon tank will suffice, but females will require a tank of at least 75-gallons since they grow to be larger. Water quality is of extreme importance, so a good idea is to use a larger-than-recommended water filter to ensure there’s plenty of oxygen.
Mississippi maps require a nice flat surface or two to bask on, and they love vegetation, so it’s wise to put either live aquatic plants in your turtle home or a few fake ones to help put your turtle’s mind at ease.
Your Mississippi map will need reptile-specific UVB lighting affixed over its basking spots. UVB lighting should be replaced every 9-12 months and not be blocked by glass, plexi-glass or plastic underneath it. The basking spots should be large enough to accommodate a temperature range. Temperature range over the basking spots should be between 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit or so, and the air temperature of the cage should not be allowed to drop below the mid-80s.
Water temperature in map turtle enclosures should be kept in the low to mid-70s for adult specimens. Turtles self-regulate their body temperature by basking and swimming, so it’s important that you maintain the right temperature range throughout the enclosure.
In addition to the heat source and UVB lighting, you’ll want to have a set of regular lights set to a timer that mimics the natural passing of the day and night. If you’d rather not have additional lights set up, you can use a ceramic heating element to keep the enclosure temperature even (they don’t emit light) and lights with timers for the day/night transition.
Mississippi map turtles come from the Mississippi Valley. Their natural range starts in Illinois and Iowa and stretches down through the south into the Gulf States of Mississippi and Texas. They can also be found in Nebraska and in some of the other surrounding states along the tributaries of the Mississippi River. They are native to open, moving bodies of water like large lakes, streams and rivers, not isolated ponds or small creeks. Mississippi maps love areas with lush vegetation and sunny places to bask, but they are very skittish and will disappear into the water at the slightest disturbance.
The very first species of Mississippi map was discovered and collected by amateur naturalist Joseph Gustave Kohn (1837 – 1906) in New Orleans, Louisiana. When taken out of their native range, map turtles are considered an invasive animal.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Adam Denish, VMD.