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A Sub-Surface Basking Site and Shelter for Semi-Aquatic for Turtles, Newts and Frogs

Basking Yellow-bellied SliderI’ve found the Penn Plax Turtle Pier to be one of the most useful of all basking platforms.  In addition to providing a haul-out site that does not take away from the swimming area, it can be used by reptiles and amphibians in a variety of other ways.  Today I’d like to describe two “fine points” that are sometimes over-looked when semi-aquatic terrariums are designed.

Sub-Surface Resting and Basking Spots

Many semi-aquatic turtles do not often fully emerge from the water, but rather rely upon resting sites that are just below the surface.  Included among these are Mud, Musk, Snapping and Chinese Big-Headed Turtles.  In the wild, these turtles, as well as Green Frogs, Ribbed Newts and many other amphibians, rest upon submerged logs, branches and rocks that almost, but not quite, reach the water’s surface.  From such locations, they can watch for predators and prey and, possibly, obtain some UVB exposure (UVB rays do not penetrate very far into water).  In aquariums, driftwood is also useful in this regard…please see the article below.

Red-Eared Sliders, Painted, Map and other turtles bask on open, exposed logs and such as adults, but often rest upon submerged.  Hatchling turtles of all kinds, perhaps because they are on the menus of so many predators, are often reluctant to bask in plain view, preferring to remain partially submerged.

The support beams below the Turtle Pier’s top level (please see photo), and its partially submerged ramp, allow animals to rest and breathe while remaining in the water.  The Common Musk Turtle shown in the accompanying photos spends nights on both surfaces, where she can easily reach the surface with her snout.  This is an important consideration, as constantly swimming to the surface, can be detrimental to the health of turtles that are not strong swimmers by nature; this is especially true for hatchlings.  In natural habitats, young Snapping Turtles and other bottom-dwellers utilize sunken branches and aquatic plants as “ladders” when rising to breathe.

A Basking and Feeding Platform

The upper surface of the pier is flat and smooth, ideal for both turtles and amphibians.  It is equipped with an indented area designed to hold gravel, which can be used to offset the weight of heavy specimens.

I’ve also discovered that this surface greatly simplifies the feeding of American Bullfrogs, Leopard Frogs, and similar species (long story…please see the article linked below for details).

Other Features

Other useful features include strong suction cups that hold the Turtle Pier in place even in bare-bottomed tanks, a free-floating platform that adjusts to any water level, and extension bars that allow for use in extra-high aquariums.  Three sizes are available; the one pictured here is the largest, and is set up in a 30 gallon long-style aquarium.
The main basking surface and the support beams shield part of the tank from light somewhat, and in doing so form an aquartic shelter and protected resting place.

And, despite lacking the mechanical skills of a chimpanzee (which, in all fairness, are considerable), I was able to snap the Turtle Pier together in minutes!

Additional Notes

The Common Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) pictured here showed up in a shipment I received while working at a pet store in NYC…in 1969! She is the oldest animal in my collection, with her nearest competitor being a 30-33 year-old Black-Chinned Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber schrencki).

The Musk Turtle’s cave is a 110-year-old roof tile from the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House.  The cave is positioned to allow easy access to the Pier’s ramp…not essential, but useful, especially for “less athletic” swimmers and hatchlings.

The filter is a Supreme Ovation Submersible.  Although not designed specifically for reptiles, I’ve used this filter with great success since the original model was introduced over 20 years ago (the first such filter, I believe).

Next: Mudskippers?

I plan to look into the possibility of using the Turtle Pier in brackish/marine aquariums.  I’ve long been a fan of exhibits that portray animals in human-influenced settings.  While working at the Bronx Zoo, I was able to indulge this interest when designing Norway Rat and House Mouse exhibits, but I’ve not had much of a chance to do so for herps and fishes.  I can picture the Turtle Pier encrusted with Mussels and Anemones, and being used by Mudskippers, Hermit Crabs and Bumblebee Gobies…not herps, of course, but Mudskippers are about as close as a fish can get!



Further Reading

The Turtle Pier as a Frog-Feeding Tool

Alligator Snapping Turtles on Military Installations: interesting field report, including notes on sub-surface basking.

Driftwood as a Resting Site for Semi-aquatic Reptiles and Amphibians



  1. avatar

    I loved your article of turtles basking. I have a pet water turtle looks identical to your picture. When I got him 7 yrs ago he was called a yellow belly slider. Very unique pet. Highly social-able creature and thrive on attention. I know mine is domesticated. But in a field study you could say I went to a lake where there was red ear sliders and same concept. very curious and attention loving reptile. My pic of my turtle is on my web page for all to see. Love of turtles.

    • avatar

      Hello Brenda

      Thanks for your interest. The Yellow-Bellied Slider is a subspecies of the Red-ear, and as you say very similar in appearance and behavior. Some have lived into their 30’s in captivity.

      Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Some of your readers might get a kick out of this…it also shows the basic construction of a false bottom setup(I chose to use as little artificial material as possible and also to leave the watersection under the land section accessible. The result is that the newts spend lots of time in the grotto below the land section-but at least they seem happy).


    • avatar

      Hello Joseph,

      Thanks for the link to a video of your wonderful newt set-up. Great job…other nice videos there as well, I see. You always get me thinking of new projects, a blessing and a curse, but thank you. I’ll highlight the video on Youtube and Facebook soon.

      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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