Most turtles in the family Kinosternidae are small and unassuming in appearance, including the mud and musk turtles native to Virginia. Because their shells lack distinctive markings or shape these species can be difficult to identify in the wild, not to mention as faunal remains in an archaeological assemblage. Even zooarchaeologists, specialists who study the animal remains from Jamestown and other sites, can have difficulty distinguishing between the two species and group them together when conducting analysis.
The common or eastern mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) can be found throughout the eastern United States. Although they are a freshwater species, they can tolerate brackish water and inhabit coastal marshes and rivers, making Jamestown Island an excellent habitat. The common or eastern musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), also known as the stinkpot turtle, is part of another branch of the Kinosternidae family. As their name suggests, this group is defined by the scent glands at the edge of their shells that release an unpleasant musky odor to deter predators.
Many of the mud and musk turtle remains excavated at Jamestown were found in early Fort period pit features thought to have been filled with debris during the 1610 ‘cleansing’ of the Fort ordered by Governor de la Warr following the Starving Time. This debris includes the bones of many unappetizing animals that the colonists consumed after their more usual food sources disappeared. While other species of turtle were eaten in less dire circumstances, the small size (under six inches in length) of mud and musk turtles make them an inefficient food source, not to mention the unpleasant smell of the musk turtle. However, these small and plentiful turtles likely continued to crawl in and out of the Fort while the colonists were unable to leave in search of better options. Despite their continued presence on Jamestown Island through the present day, Kinosternidae are rarely found in food trash deposited by the colonists in later features when food was more plentiful.