Home | Frank's Creatures | Turtles Have Shells,But They Still Need a Place to Hide! – Part 2

Turtles Have Shells,But They Still Need a Place to Hide! – Part 2

Please see Part I of this article for general information concerning pet turtle shelters.  Today we’ll look at meeting the needs of a few specialists.

Aquatic Bottom Dwellers

Mata Mata Turtles (Chelus fimbriatus), Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina), Alligator Snapping Turtles (Macroclemmys temmincki) and some other aquatic species prefer to burrow under plants or mud, and rarely use caves.  These turtles can easily be accommodated with Hagen Suction Cup-Equipped Plants.  By positioning the suction cups so that the plant just touches the bottom of the aquarium, you can create a naturalistic shelter …several plants used in together can accommodate quite large specimens.

Shallow Water/Swamp Dwellers

Bog TurtleBog Turtles (Clemmys muhlenbergi) and other retiring, shallow water species are usually most comfortable in heavily planted terrariums, with plenty of dead wood and moss available for hiding (please see photo).  These will readily utilize artificial plants as well.

Large Tortoises

That 150 pound Spurred Tortoise you’ve raised will need a custom built “house”, but for most large terrestrial turtles, you can also use the Hagen plants described above.  This actually suits tortoises quite well – in the wild most shelter within brush and under leaves, and not in “caves” per se.

Softshell Turtles

Softshell Turtles of all species are specialists, and do best when provided with fine sand in which to burrow.  Although excellent swimmers, they prefer to shelter below sand in shallow water, so that they can breathe by merely extending their necks to the surface.  Although sand complicates cleaning, most softshells fare poorly without it.

A Hundred Year Old Home

Musk TurtleYou can also create your own shelters…broken clay flower pots are an old standby.  The Common Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) pictured here has been with me for 40 years.  It is posing before its very unique cave – a 100 year old tile from the roof of the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House!

Further Reading

The Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera spinifera) has specific habitat requirements in both captivity (please see above) and the wild, and is threatened throughout much of its range.  A comprehensive recovery plan containing interesting natural history notes is posted here.



  1. avatar

    Hi Frank.
    I have some questions about Mata mata, regarding habitat, reducing stress, etc. (I recently posted about some likely stress-related problems with tentacled snakes, so I want to stay on top of things). Yes, I’m a glutton for punishment, trying to maintain these two difficult species.
    I was fortunate to get a Mata mata recently (~5″ long), about 2 weeks ago. It was shipped to me overnight air (although in hindsight, I should have driven the 3 hrs to pick it up, since it flew from Miami, FL to Philadelphia, and back to Orlando, FL, before making it to me a day late). He seems to be doing great, eating well, but I want to make sure I’m on the good path.
    He initially ate the feeder fish (rosy reds), but seems to prefer larger fish (mollies) now, and ate 3 yesterday. Several rosy reds remain in the tank.
    How often should I feed him?
    He is in a 20gal long breeder tank with small gravel, with one of the reptile waterfall filters, and some fake aquatic plants that give him shelter. I have an submersible heater in one corner and another glass bulb heater along the back. I was concerned that the sumersible heater might not provide sufficient heating.
    He periodically moves from a spot under the waterfall, to the other end of the tank. The heaters are closer to the waterfall, so I assume these movements are for thermoregulation.
    I have a standard uv light for the tank. Is it better to keep him with the light off for a while longer? Or should stay on a 12/12 light/dark cycle? He can get filtered room lighting during the day.
    I have used ‘pH down’ to keep the pH around 6, but noticed that it is creeping back up (6.8). Not sure what would cause the pH increase. But, I am slowly bringing it back down.
    I added a large handful sphagnum moss to the water surface for additional shelter, and also thought this would help with maintaining lower pH.
    All outward signs say he is doing great. He is fascinating to watch as he slowly stalks the fish into a corner (although he’s not always successful on first attempts, as fish swim away, and often get eaten when I’m not looking – still trying to get a good video).
    If you have any other suggestions, or can point me to some archived posts, that would be great. Thanks for your help.

    • avatar

      Hello Bill, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for the feedback; I see a pattern here – odd-looking, aquatic fish-eaters; I expect you’ll be tackling Surinam Toads soon? I share your interests, easy to understand.

      Depending on temperature, a turtle that size can have food available most of the time – Matas seem not to overeat, in contrast to most other turtles, at least in my experience. Living in waters with such high prey densities may be a factor. I’ve seined in rivers inhabited by them – each haul contained dozens of fish species, many pet trade staples. Try to offer as many species as possible,; he may lean towards larger ones, but good to have a choice. Can use golden shiners as staple in time, pet species as treats; if you can seine local fishes that would be ideal, trim cat’s spines – walking cats, have killed caiman (not sure if they have reached your area, but natives dangerous as well).

      Tong-feeding FW food fishes, trout, tilapia, catfish is useful, uncleaned best but cleaned ok for variety’s sake.

      Gravel can pose serious problems, as they invariably swallow a good deal of it; some passes, but blockages have occurred. Wild habitat is largely mud bottomed rivers,; sand may work but still a concern. I’ve always kept them in bare bottomed/; rubberized tanks, helps in cleaning as well. Let me know if he has trouble moving about on glass, can add large river rock/shale.

      Dim light preferable, UVB not necessary and barely penetrates water but not harmful. Floating plants work well in limiting light if you want it a bit brighter. Matas tend not to eat if stressed, but always good to keep aware.

      I’ve not looked into pH with these guys, but am not aware of any skin problems; lower safer however. Sphagnum tends to clog filters as it breaks down, also easy to swallow. Can enclose it and peat in a muslin bag, may need quite a bit to affect pH.

      Hard to get any sort of thermal gradient in a small tank that has circulating water, except right up against heater; but they seem fine without.

      Interesting that you mentioned “cornering” – an ex co-worker of mine documented “herding” behavior in large exhibits – not much on it since. He also brought to light the goldfish concerns – please see this article for more on that. The turtle I’m holding came out of a food market in, in believe, Guyana…that’s what you can look forward to, so start saving some money for an aquarium/pool!

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Hmm… Surinam toads, huh? Just watched a video, with emerging baby toads. Bizarre…Can they be acquired in the US?
    How about the fanged, bird-eating frog from Thailand? (I don’t think my wife would like this one!)
    Surprisingly, I wasn’t always so interested in herps -except for sea turtles and gators, since I live on the east coast of Florida. I returned to grad school about 5 yrs ago, and began research with pit vipers and pythons (studying thermosensation and thermal targeting behaviors). I got curious about tentacled snakes after the recent publications shed more light on this species, and then recently just stumbled across a great deal on a Mata mata, and couldn’t pass it up.

    For a substitute for Mata mata’s aquarium gravel, I suppose a simple rubber bathtub mat (cut to size) could work? Any suggestions on specific material/vendor?
    Regarding herding – In one instance, the turtle had cornered (perhaps by accident) a molly against the tank wall, appearing to squat with it’s hind leg pressed against the wall, so the fish could not escape to the turtle’s rear. The only escape would eventually lead the fish right past the turtle’s head. Never saw the fish again.
    After adding the fish, I was also surprised how rapidly the turtle had stretched then stalked across the tank, not expecting it to move so (relatively) fast – in some cases too fast, as the fish swam for cover before the turtle could suck him up. Patience is the key…
    Regarding seining local fish for feeding: I live near brackish waters, and my son often catches pinfish and ‘greenies’ while castnetting off the docks.
    Any concerns feeding them fish from these brackish waters? Should I dip them if FW before adding to tank?
    Funny you should mention a larger pool. That was my next question.
    I have a relatively large outdoor space, a perpetually unplanted raised dune area with a 3-ft retaining wall, about 25ft x 6ft. Just begging for an exotic habitat display. I have some ideas about multiple/separate ponds, for the new turtle, and fish (koi?) too, (but maybe on the same recirculating water supply?). Probably need heaters/covers for winter (not too bad in Florida). Anyway, I’m sure I’ll have many more questions for you in the future.
    If I were to build a larger pond/pool, would I need to wait until the turtle got bigger before moving to a larger pool? Should I step up in aquarium/pond size gradually? Maybe I can add dividers to corral the turtle until it is bigger.


    • avatar

      Hello Bill, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for the feedback.

      Surinam toads do appear in the trade, but most often as w/c adults. I was lucky enough to breed them at 1 point (see here) but they do not ship well- 2 yrs ago I dealt with a confiscation and had to medicate them for months; some wound up at a public aquarium in CT, but some losses. Established animals/captive born worth searching for. The Bird-eater only recently described, would be great to see!

      Fascinating subject you’re working on. The new info on Tentacled Snake hunting techniques is really something – please check out the references and video at end of this article if you’ve not seen them.

      A contractor at the BX Zoo installed the rubber-bottomed exhibit, so I don’t have specs, but mat should suffice provided it’s inert…I may be able to run materials past someone for you if you’re not sure. I’d cut it a bit smaller than tank, so you can move it, siphon below.

      Thanx for observations on hunting – wish I had old journal article (I may actually); showed turtles using side of shell, necks as barriers, as you describe.

      Brackish fish ok, I’ve used mummichogs, silversides, eels etc for years, not sure about problems as sole diet, but otherwise a good idea. Most parasites that go from fish to herps seem rather specific in host choice; some zoos use methylene blue baths, dips, but we did not at BZ; good idea, however, if you can manage it.

      Outdoor is such a great option, here raccoons are a constant problem, can kill even large adult turtles; I’ve trapped them in the heart of Manhattan, and 4 coyotes even made it to Central Park, so in Fla I wouldn’t rule anything out! Heating pools is easy enough, but sever cold snaps last year in Fla decimated populations of introduced tropical herps; breathing unusually cold air would likely be a concern even if water is heated.

      More space almost always a plus…the turtle should adjust well and catch food as needed.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

    • avatar

      Hello Bill, Frank Indiviglio here.

      I’d say ideal if all-silicone, I don’t imagine either would contain any other non-inert material, but perhaps good idea to inquire of manufacturer?

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Hi Frank!
    Last weekend I went to an aqrarium for minnows shopping. There is a kind of frog that always stay in the water (Xenopus laevis). Do Mata mata consume this kind of frog? Is it possible for Mata mata to eat normal frogs and hatchling fresh-water turtle with soft shell? These bait usually for Scleropages formosus.

    Mata dosen’t have grate interest in dead fish…..very picky, so I’m finding alternative food suply for my Mata.

    Thanks for your help!

    • avatar

      Hello Eric, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks…interesting questions. Mata Matas may consume African clawed frogs (Xenopus) but these should not be offered. Most frogs produce strong skin toxins (toxins are not limited to brightly colored frogs, as is often assumed); mata matas would be especially at risk, since they swallow so quickly with no chance to reject due to bad taste. Since the frogs are not native to the mata’s habitat, the turtle would have no instinct to avoid them. I kept a Xenopus with an American eel for decades – the eel ate just about anything, but would not touch the frog.

      Mata’s I’ve kept have eaten American bullfrog tadpoles, but I would not suggest experimenting with others. Do not offer young turtles…matas seem to be fish specialists, and would not likely do well on this diet. Also, Softshells are bred under crowded conditions and often carry a high parasite load, Salmonella, etc.

      It’s a good idea to keep trying dead fish, as this will enable you to offer a greater variety of species in time.

      I’m interested in something you mentioned – Are turtles and frogs sold as food for Arawana (Scleropages formosus) in your region (where are you located?), Thanks.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  4. avatar

    Hi Frank!
    I am from Taiwan. Taiwan is a high density country and there are aqrariums everywhere. I like to windowshopping sometime haha.

    Wow! Xenopus kept with American eel for dacades, this kind of frog seems really poisonous.

    Except these baits, there is another kind of bait avaliable in our shops, Loach. Loach is the family of Corydoradinae, so some people on the other blog are refused to feed their pets with Loach. Nevertheless, It “seems” fine to be a long-term diet, because there is someone who feed his Mata with Loach for ten years (between believing and suspicion). They are cheap also. Do you feed your pet turtles with this kind of fish in the US? Is it good for turtles?

    I guess Thiaminase-strength is diffrent between every species, just like you mentioned, GoldenShinner is fine for the long-term diet. I will try different fishes anyway =D

    Thanks and take care!

    • avatar

      Hello Eric, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for the feedback. Taiwan is a good place for one interested in animals, I think. Friends from there have told me great things about the aquariums and other stores there.

      Loaches are not often used for food for other animals here in the US; more often seen as an aquarium (display) fish and so would be too expensive. I have seen large weather loaches (Misgurnus anguillicaudatus or M. fossilis) in food markets (people food) in Manhattan’s Chinese community. These are also kept in aquariums – one of mine lived for over 20 years (please see this article).

      However loaches of several types are used as food for Japanese and Chinese Giant Salamanders in zoos and breeding facilities in those countries; the salamanders are very rare, so I assume that loaches have been researched and found to be a good diet; the info about them as Mata mata food is very useful, thank you.

      Another good point about using minnows is that, at least here in the US, they are raised in outdoor ponds and feed on insects, algae and other natural foods; tropical fishes (platys, etc) are also often raised outdoors, or given a varied diet. Goldfishes are usually fed largely upon manure from chicken farms or agricultural wastes and this may affect their quality as a food item.

      Thanks very much for your input…any observations, odd creatures in the market and so on would be most appreciated when you have time.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    Hi Frank!
    In our fish shop, 1 dollar=37g Loaches. It is very cheap to buy this kind of fish to feed your pets, and Loaches are adaptable in a lot of fresh water environment. I found out they will survive longer in my fish tank, so they will alive untile be fed as bait. Otherwise, I really hate gold fish, because they are so delicate lol.

    Yesterday I went to Green Iland for vacation, and something about mineral bump into my head. Do turtles need mineral? If my tank is bare (no sand), would my turtle absorb enough mineral? Or should I put some sand in my tank? Hope you can help me!

    Thanks Frank!

    • avatar

      Hello Eric, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks, I appreciate that interesting info. Here goldfishes are considered “hardy”, but I agree with you that they are not; Weather loaches have become established in many areas outside of their native range including Spain (escaped bait) and the USA (maybe bait, but likely from the aquarium trade); they are even found in Michigan which has extremely long, cold winters.

      Greenland…no turtles there! (although Leatherbacks do get that far north). Turtles do need minerals, esp calcium and vitamins; Musk turtles will get all they need from a balanced diet that includes whole fishes and a quality turtle pellet. Painted turtles and others that bask need unfiltered sunlight or a UVB bulb in order to manufacture Vitamin D, which is required for calcium absorption; musks can use Vit D present in the diet, however. Some folks leave calcium blocks or cuttlebone (sold for birds) in turtle tanks for their turtles to munch on. As far as we know, they do not absorb minerals through the skin. Not all turtles take it, and not necessary if you feed your musks well.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  6. avatar

    Hi Frank!
    But my turtle is Mata. He dosen’t eat turtle pellet. What should I do to help him absorb enough mineral?

    • avatar

      Hello Eric, Frank Indiviglio here.

      So sorry!…I had musk turtles on my mind after a recent email; thanks for getting back to me.

      Mata Matas get all the calcium and other nutrients they need from fish; they are highly adapted to a fish-only diet. Best to provide a variety of species, but I’ve never seen any evidence of deficiencies other than the problems we discussed concerning goldfish. Matas do not need to bask in order to obtain Vit D.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  7. avatar

    Hi Frank!
    Cool! I don’t have to worry about then 😀

    Frank, this link is a kind of stone that I want to decorate my Mata mata tank .
    Is it cool for my Mata mata? They are about 1mm-2mm and are very beautiful.

    Link 1

    Link 2

    They were chosen from Yahoo auction. Really cool stone.

    • avatar

      Hello Eric, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for the feedback. I wouldn’t use the stones in a mata mata tank. Matas expand their throats when feeding, creating a powerful suction that pulls water and fish into the mouth. They are very likely to suck in small stones as well, which could lead to an intestinal blockage (very common in past, also with Surinam Toads). In the wild, matas inhabit mud bottomed rivers, and likely have no mechanism to pass stones accidently ingested. In zoos, I keep them in rubber-bottomed exhibits or bare bottomed tanks.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  8. avatar

    Hi Frank!
    OK! I decided to use bare bottomed tank, It seems good for turtle and is easy to clean.

    My Mata is getting bigger and bigger. I can tell from the old shell on his back. Would the old shell come off just like the elilgator snapping turtle?

    Thanks for your time and your informations really helped me!

    • avatar

      Hello Eric, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for the kind words; I’m glad the information has been helpful.

      Many turtles shed scutes, which are this plates that cover the boney shell. The process is not directly related to growth (i.e. it differs from skin-shedding in snakes) and is most common in semi aquatic turtles that bask in the sun (sliders, painted turtles, etc.). One theory is that removing scutes covered in algae, etc. allows more UVB exposure and aids in raising temperature.

      I’ve not noticed Mata Matas ever shedding scutes; Interesting that your alligator snapper does shed – I don’t recall seeing that. Alligator snappers are not known to bask often, but recent journal articles indicate that they do so on occasion.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  9. avatar


    I really need some help. I have a Mata Mata that I have had since early December and he seemed to be doing really well. Last week I noticed a large piece of what looks like shedded skin hanging off of his chin and now it has spread to his plastrons. Any help you can offer would be greatly appreciated!!

    • avatar

      Hello Sonia

      Thanks for your interest. Turtles will regularly shed bits of skin, but I’ve noticed that Mata mata seem to do so more often…and they seem to go through “phases”, shedding quite a bit, then not at all. Many theories, ranging from normal growth to stress, inappropriate pH or water that is too hard. I’ve not seen any problems, except in one case where an underlying infection of the skin was involves. By “plastron”, do you mean the shell itself or the skin there?

      Please send me some details re size of the turtle and tank, general set-up, substrate, diet, temperature, pH and so on and we can go over all. I may be able to refer you to a local vet as well, if that is what’s needed.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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