Many aquatic turtles make wonderful pets, but nearly all share one troublesome trait – they are messy feeders, and keeping their water clear is often a major challenge. Today I’d like to present a simple, time-saving feeding technique and review some helpful products such as undergravel filters and gravel washers.
Separate Feeding Containers
In both zoo collections and with my own aquatic pets, I have found removing the turtles from their aquarium for feeding to be the most effective way of maintaining water quality. Nearly all turtles adjust readily to this, and feed without difficulty in plastic tubs or other easily-cleaned containers. I’ve had difficulties only with a few retiring species, such as mata mata turtles (Chelus fimbriatus) and giant soft-shelled turtles (Pelochelys bibroni). For these, extra space and cover in the form of floating plants did the trick.
Leave the turtles in their feeding container for 20 minutes or so after they finish eating, unless such is stressful for them (turtles are very perceptive…some are uncomfortable in strange surroundings and will try to escape after feeding). Elimination is swift, and many pass stored wastes shortly after eating.
Partial Water Changes
In terms of water clarity and ammonia management, partial water changes are as important for turtles as for aquarium fishes. Soft-shelled and Fly River turtles (Carettochelys insculpta) are particularly sensitive to poor water quality, but it is a concern for all species.
When doing a water change, use a gravel washer to pull water from the very bottom of the aquarium. This is a good idea even if you keep your turtles in a bare bottomed tank, and essential if you use gravel as a substrate.
I’ve found it very useful to siphon water from the aquarium into the feeding container at meal times – this assures frequent water changes and has allowed me to keep even quite large snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and giant musk turtle (Staurotypus triporcatus) aquariums crystal clear.
One important point: do not start a siphon by drawing on its end with your mouth to fill the tube, as aquarium water should never be ingested. Lee’s Self-starting Gravel Cleaner is the best model to use with turtles. If you choose a sink-compatible gravel cleaner, be sure to drain the waste water out a door or into a basement sink, and not to one used for food preparation.
An undergravel filter will turn your entire filter bed into a living filtration unit. Gravel washing and partial water changes are still necessary, but if powered by a suitably strong aquarium pump, an undergravel filter will go a long way in easing tank maintenance. I use them either alone or in conjunction with canister or other mechanical filters, depending upon the circumstances.
For those times when you must feed your turtles within their aquarium, choosing a suitably-sized food item will assure that less of it winds up floating about and clouding the water. Please check out our pelleted turtle foods for some ideas as to the sizes that are available.
Large species such as snapping turtles and alligator snapping turtles are interesting, but pose serious husbandry difficulties for most hobbyists. For some ideas and tips, please see my article The Captive Care of Snapping Turtles and Alligator Snapping Turtles.