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Red-Eared Slider, Map and Painted Turtles – Semi-Aquatic Turtle Care

Florida CooterHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Turtles that split their time between land and water are among the world’s most popular reptilian pets.  Cooters, Red-Bellied Turtles, Yellow-Bellied Sliders, Reeve’s Turtles, Red-Headed Sidenecks and many other species can also be kept as described below.  Please write in for specific information on these and other turtles.

Natural History

The Red-Eared Slider, Trachemys scripta elegans, is bred in the millions on farms in the American Southeast.  Unfortunately, their needs are often not appreciated by new owners, who are usually surprised at how quickly their pets grow.  However, assuming that you plan for its size and 30+ year lifespan, the Slider makes a wonderfully-responsive pet.

The Slider’s natural range extends from the central and southeastern USA into Texas and Mexico.  It also has the widest introduced range of any reptile, with populations established in Brazil, Japan, New Zealand and over 40 other countries. 

The 4 Painted Turtle species are, indeed, so colorful as to appear “painted”.  They range from southern Canada through most of the USA to northern Mexico.

The 13 Map Turtle species are also confined to North America.  The Black-Knobbed Map and others sport uniquely-ridged shells and fantastic patterns. 

Behavior

Semi-aquatic turtles quickly learn to associate their owners with food, and will paddle over to beg when you approach.  Ever-alert, they plunge (or “slide”) from basking sites when startled.  Most feed readily from the hand, and they may even reproduce.

Housing

Setting up the Aquarium

Female Sliders reach 8-12 inches in length, while males generally top out at 6 inches.  An adult female will require a 55-75 gallon aquarium; a male might make due in a 30 gallon, but more room is preferable.

Zoo Med’s Turtle Tub  is an excellent option for larger individuals. Plastic storage bins, if properly outfitted, may also be used.

Wading pools are often easier to manage than aquariums.  Koi ponds sometimes contain shelves meant to hold plants; these work well as turtle basking areas.  Outdoor housing is ideal, assuming that raccoons and other predators can be excluded.

Although highly aquatic, Sliders and similar turtles need a dry surface on which to bask.  Commercial turtle docks will suffice for smaller specimens.  Cork bark, wedged or affixed via silicone to the aquarium’s sides, is a good option for adults.

Filtration

Black Knobbed Map TurtleTurtles are messy feeders and very hard on water quality.  Submersible or canister filters are necessary unless the enclosure can be emptied and cleaned several times weekly (I’ve found the Zoo Med Turtle Clean Filter to be ideal).  Even with filtration, partial water changes are essential.

Removing your turtles to an easily-cleaned container for feeding will lessen the filter’s workload and help to keep the water clean.

Substrate

Bare-bottomed aquariums are best, as gravel traps food and wastes, greatly complicating cleaning.  If gravel is used, it should be of a size too large to be swallowed.

Light and Heat

Turtles that bask in the wild require UVB radiation in captivity.  If a florescent bulb is used (the Zoo Med 10.0 Bulb provides the highest UVB output), be sure that the turtle can bask within 6-12 inches of it.  Mercury vapor and halogen bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances, and also provide beneficial UVA radiation.  Natural sunlight is the best UVB source, but be aware that glass filters-out UVB rays.

Water temperatures of 75-82 F should be maintained.  Large individuals may break typical aquarium heaters, so choose a reinforced model such as the ExoTerra Turtle heater.  An incandescent bulb should be used to warm the basking site to 88-90 F.

Companions

Semi-aquatic turtles will eat or harass fishes, newts and aquatic frogs. 

Individuals of the same sex may get along, but aggression often develops so be prepared to house them separately.  It’s difficult to keep pairs together long-term, as the males’ continual mating attempts usually cause stress and bite wounds. Please write in for information on breeding.

Feeding

In the wild, Sliders, Painted Turtles and similar species begin life as carnivores but increasingly consume aquatic plants as they mature.  Pets favor animal-based foods, but should be encouraged to eat plants; a fasting period will tempt them to sample new items. 

Dandelion, kale, mustard and collared greens, romaine and other produce should be offered.  Aquatic plants such as Elodea, Anachris and Duckweed may also be accepted.  Spinach and beet leaves are high in oxalic acid and have been implicated in health problems.

Reptomin Food Sticks provide excellent nutrition and can serve as 50-75% of the diet.  Other commercial aquatic turtle diets are also worth investigating. 

Painted TurtleNatural foods should always be included in turtle diets.  Whole freshwater fishes such as minnows and shiners are the best source of Calcium for turtles.  Offer fish at least once weekly, but use goldfishes sparingly as a steady goldfish diet has been implicated in liver problems.

Other important food items include earthworms, krill, canned snails, and freeze-dried river shrimp and, to a lesser extent, crickets, waxworms and other insects.

Health Considerations

Salmonella bacteria, commonly present in turtle digestive tracts, can cause severe illnesses in people.  Handling an animal will not cause an infection, as the bacteria must be ingested.  Salmonella infections are easy to avoid via the use of proper hygiene.  Wash your hands with warm, soapy water after handling any animal. Please speak with your family doctor concerning details, and feel free to write me for links to useful resources.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.  Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

 

Further Reading

Video: Pink-Albino Red Eared Sliders

Black-Knobbed Map Turtle Natural History

Unusual Red-Eared Slider Relatives

Black Knobbed Map Turtle image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Open Cage

14 comments

  1. avatar

    Frank,

    We live in Florida and have moved our 2 RES outside into an approx 1200 gallon enclosed pond. We have not heated the water yet, but are getting concerened as the water and air temp has been dropping. They do not have any place to hybernate. Do we need to heat the water and do you have any recommendations for a heater?

  2. avatar

    Hello,
    Sorry if you did not see my answer, posted when you first posed this question on another article.
    Nice to hear of sliders being kept in such good conditions! I’ve re-posted below…please let me know if you need further information.
    Florida can be tricky; 2 years ago, there were major die-offs of reptiles, even in the south, during the unusually cold winter. Sliders overwinter successfully here in NY, and points north, but there are risks involved. At 60 F, they tend to stay fairly active, may bask on nice days, and will eat sporadically. Warming water to 68 or above is safer, but they will still be breathing cold air. The immune systems are not working at full speed at those temps, so there’s always a risk of bacterial infection, etc. True hibernation (temps at 50 or below) is difficult to attempt. But sliders generally do well if water remains in 60′s, even if air is colder and especially if, as in Florida, they will have a chance to bask on warm days.
    However, if the female is gravid she will likely run into problems; she’ll not lay as temperatures drop, and there’s a good chance the eggs will decompose and cause a fatal infection (egg yolk peritonitis or related). I suggest a vet visit for xrays and an oxytosin injection if appropriate; this will cause her to release the eggs. Let the vet know your situation…you may be advised to keep the turtle indoors over the winter. Please let me know if you need help in locating a turtle-experienced vet.
    Fish pond heaters are available; please let me know if you need help in locating one.

    Best, Frank

  3. avatar

    Hi Mr. Indiviglio, Sorry for the confusion on my part in contacting you. We live in Oakland, MI. if you could let me know who might take them. My daughter would really like to keep at least one of the turtles, but we will do what is best for them. The link to the heater says it is no longer available. And we cannot put much water in the tank as 2 of them cannot swim very well. So is there a heater you would recommend for low water volume. I have a 10.0 compact uvb, do they also need a basking light ? And can I assume that all the temperature recommendations are the same for hatch-lings as they are for adults.

    Thanks again for your time,

    Sue Thomas

  4. avatar

    Hi Sue,
    Following are lists of rehabilitators, pet rescues, turtle rescues and herp societies in Michigan. If none are nearby, contact any and ask for a reference.
    Temperature etc are the same for adults and hatchlings. best to put those having difficulty with a rehabilitator, etc and keep the most vigorous.

    Hard to heat a tilted tank. Best to level tank, add 3-4 inches of water and provide a sloped basking site ; these ramps are ideal. Heater size depends on water volume, but a 25 watt model should be fine. be sure to monitor with a thermometer. Reptomin can form the basis on the diet, but you’ll need to provide small whole fishes (ie guppies) and the other foods mentioned in the article. A basking bulb should be put over the land area (florescent UVB bulbs do not provide much heat),. A 50 wt should be fine.
    When doing water changes, be sure to unplug the heater 15 min before emptying water, or it may crack. As the turtle grows, you’ll need a filter or a larger, easily dumped plastic bin to use as a home..I can update you when necessary. Please bear in mind that turtles collected in autumn may be in hibernation mode and may not feed even if kept warm…if that occurs, survival indoors can be tricky, especially for hatchlings.

    You should also check MI regs re the legality of keeping native reptiles. Best, Frank

    http://mobile.kingsnake.com/rescues/state/MI/

    http://www.anapsid.org/societies/mich.html

    http://wildliferehabinfo.org/Contact_A-M.htm

  5. avatar

    Hi Mr. Indiviglio, I have been trying to contact some one who can take these little guys, but some are not licensed to take native reptiles, and most are pretty far away. One recommended that I put them out tonight, bring there temperature down and then put them back in the ground and cover them up. He said that would make them hibernate. Wouldn”t that kill them? I will keep trying, have a couple more numbers, also going to try a local nature center. And as far as the local laws DNR regarding them its confusing at best. It is illegal to sell them but unclear on keeping them. I will keep you informed, and continue our best with them.

    Thanks,

    Sue Thomas

  6. avatar

    Hi Sue,

    Try focusing on the herp/turtle societies and reptile rescues…many have a placement service. Nature center a good idea also; local zoos may have contacts (call reptile department, not main numbers)

    Turtles can be re-buried right away in most cases, but I don’t know of anyone who has tried it after several days. it could work, in theory. You’d need to re-bury them in the AM, before they warm up. The nest structure will have changed by now (air pockets are created around the eggs during laying, etc.) I’d put a layer of leaves over the eggs before adding dirt. Risky, but so is keeping them. They can sometimes be over-wintered in damp moss in a frig at 36 F or so.

    If you do locate someone, best to give them all and start your child off right with a captive bred individual; survival iffy at best under present circumstances. much better pets, less chance of parasites, etc. I can suggest species, sources when you are ready.

    Best, frank

  7. avatar

    Hi Mr. Indiviglo, After many calls with no one being able to help. I was finally able to contact a turtle rehabilitator, how ever after 35 years she and her husband have retired. after I explained the situation to her she felt that they should be put in the lake. She said that our summer was cooler the turtles laid eggs a little later. They were seeing late hatching. Our Sept. and Oct. have been warmer 60’s and 70’s with lows just recently in the lower 40’s. She said the water temp’s are still warmer than night temps. We are expecting a cool down at the beginning of the week, highs in the 50’s lows going down to upper 30’s. She thought if we could get them into the reeds today they would just go into hibernation this week.The fact that they have not eaten, and the water I have them in has only been 68 to 70 deg. She felt this would be there best chance. In another week if the temps. stayed down it would be to late to put them out and would have to try to winter them inside. I really want to do whats best and have them populate our lake. The nature centers don’t take them and I could not find a contact for the zoo.
    Just wanted to see if this sounds right to you.

    Thanks,
    Sue Thomas

  8. avatar

    Hi Sue,

    I think it’s a worthwhile plan…there is quite a bit of flexibility in their breeding patterns, even within the same population; hard to apply general rules – contacts with long experience in the area are the best source of info. And what they said re empty stomachs and water temps is true…I’d trust them on this. Painted turtles are amazingly cold-tolerant…in fact they are being studied by researchers seeking to develop a way to store human organs for future transplantation. I would do as your contact suggests, rather than trying to over-winter at home. I wouldn’t suggest holding onto one of these as a pet for your child..let me know if you need info on a better choice for a pet, Best, Frank

  9. avatar

    Hi Mr. Indiviglio, We will be releasing them this afternoon when temps are at highest, as suggested. Yes even my daughter agrees that the best place for our little friends is in our lake, that is where they belong. I really appreciate you help with everything. And if she decides she would like a turtle as a pet we will contact you for information.

    Thanks again,

    Sue Thomas

  10. avatar

    My pleasure; good idea – they should be fine; let me know if you need anything, best, Frank

  11. avatar

    Hi Mr. Indiviglio, Update on turtles. We released them on Sat. afternoon. It was amazing, we found a nice shallow area protected with vegetation and reeds. The lake has a silt bottom so they just went right in and immediately went down into the muck. The weakest one sat for a minute until the others passed him and then he followed them right in. They definitely knew what they wanted to do. My husband even took a little video.
    Thanks so much for all your help, and now there is a contact here in my area on turtles if anyone else ever needs it. She was very helpful and was really up to speed on turtles in Michigan.

    Sue

  12. avatar

    Very good to hear Sue, thanks. Good decision, I think they will be fine. let me know if you need anything in the future, best, Frank

  13. avatar

    I always find it interesting that information for animal care can be different from person to person! It makes me realize that sometimes it is not about how to take care of a species, it is about taking care of individuals. My basic rule of thumb for tank size has been at least 1 gallon for 1 inch of shell (just to make it understandable to pet parents.) There are certainly common misperceptions that turtles stay hatchling size and won’t outgrow an enclosure. I see it all the time. My male and female eastern painted are typically in 50 to 55 gallon tanks. When I first got my turtle in 1995, there wasn’t a huge turtle accessory market so I made everything or borrowed from fish. I did initially use gravel since I grew up with fish but realized a few years later that there is no need for it. In fact, I have witnessed Red Eared Slider turtles ingesting these rocks which can be disconcerting if you don’t see those same rocks expelled. For years, I have been using Zoo Med PowerSun Bulbs. For heaters, I definitely recommend a sturdy reptile specific one. I use Tetrafauna turtle water heaters. My turtles like to climb on these so it is worth it for their safety. I had a fish water heater that shattered in a tank before. For food, I feed them Zoo Med Maintenance pellets, worms, crickets, and dark leafy greens on a fixed schedule. (Tu, Th, Sa are pellets, Mon are crickets, Wed are worms or crickets, Fri is crickets, Sun is greens) However, as a hatchling, my male turtle had earthworms and ReptoMin sticks. I used to feed my turtles an occasional minnow, but I have sat in on a turtle conference that foretold warnings about feeding “feeder fish.” I guess I’ve been spooked ever since. I used to keep a Pleco fish in my turtle tanks. They ate the turtle feces and algae. It worked out really well until the fish passed away (and not to the fault of my turtles). In terms of tank maintenance, I have tried all different ways. I mostly run various fish filters. In conjunction with that, I scoop food and fecal from the tanks every day with a net. I also give my turtles their pellets in critter carriers to cut down on the waste. I typically do complete water changes and accessory cleans every 2 to 3 weeks. I rinse the filter cartridges in the meantime. For water conditioning, I used to use Reptile Aquasafe, but I noticed my turtles’ eyes were irritated from it every time. I highly recommend Reptisafe instead. To give my turtles some enrichment, I bought the Zoo Med Turtle Floating Feeder. Since their pellets are too big for it, I use worms instead. I have traveled coast to coast many times with these aquatic turtles (plus a tortoise), giving proof to people that, yes, you can bring your turtle with you when you move to California. I would be happy to provide tips. (I’ve been debating about writing a book!) Thanks so much for your interest in my husbandry, Frank! (By the way, my male Eastern Painted’s name is Franklin!) I really enjoy your blog!

  14. avatar

    Hello Lex,

    Thanks very much for the useful post, great to have feedback on products and such. people raise concerns about various types of feeders from time to time…have never run across any problems attributable to minnows or shiners. Steady goldfish diets linked to liver/kidney damage, early deaths in mata matas. Enjoy,
    Best, Frank

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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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