The world’s most popular pet turtle, the Red Eared Slider, is a poor choice for those lacking space for a huge aquarium and filter. A number of smaller, less active turtles are easier to accommodate in homes and classrooms. Today I’ll cover some of my favorite aquatic, semi-aquatic and terrestrial species, all of which are being bred in captivity. Unless otherwise stated, all can be kept in a 20-30 gallon aquarium or similarly-sized plastic bin. This list is by no means exhaustive, so please be sure to post your own choices and share your experiences below. Please see the linked articles and post below for in depth information on care and breeding.
Common Musk Turtle, Sternotherus odoratus
As I type this article, I’m being watched by a Musk Turtle that I acquired in 1969, so I can vouch for their hardiness!
Found across a wide chunk of eastern North America, females rarely exceed 4 inches in length, while males average 3 inches.
As turtles go, these engaging little guys are quite simple to care for. Reptomin can comprise 50-60% of the diet, with the balance being supplied by other aquatic turtle foods, earthworms, freeze dried shrimp, and minnows.
While Musk Turtles occasionally bask, they can (if fed properly) obtain sufficient Vitamin D from their diets and do not need a source of UVB light. Highly aquatic but somewhat weak swimmers, they do best in 5-8 inches of water with an easily-accessed platform.
A relative, the Flattened Musk Turtle, Sternotherus depressus, is
North America’s smallest turtle. A mere 3 – 4 inches in length, it lives only in Alabama’s Black Warrior River, and is not often seen in private collections.
Chinese Big Headed Turtle, Platysternon megacephalum
Although not commonly-seen in the trade, this hardy, unusual turtle adapts well to captivity. I’ve cared for several 30 year-olds in zoo collections, and one owned by a friend is 45-50 years of age.
Native to Southeast Asia, Big Headed Turtles inhabit cool, fast-flowing streams. The head, almost half as wide as the rectangular carapace, is protected by bony, shell-like plates along its top and sides. The large jaws are similarly reinforced – an adaptation to preying upon snails, clams, crayfishes and similar invertebrates.
Big Headed Turtles are very aware of all that goes on around them, and will “greet” their owner at feeding time. But their “greetings” must be viewed with caution, as many resent handling; bites and scratches can be quite severe! Children should not be trusted with this species.
Poor swimmers, Big Heads do best when kept in shallow water. I always offer crayfishes, fresh and canned snails and crabs, but others have had success with standard carnivorous turtle diets. They become uncomfortable when water temperatures rise above the mid-seventies, and fare best at 68-72 F. I heat a semi-submerged basking area to 80 F, but find that it is rarely used. A red/black reptile night bulb will help you to observe your turtles after dark, when they are most active.
Somewhat shy despite their impressive jaws, Big Headed Turtles should always have access to submerged caves. Old crockery flowerpots work well; I also favor the Penn Plax Turtle Pier, which provides a dry basking site as well as an underwater shelter. Aided by strong legs and a long tail, Big Headed Turtles are accomplished climbers. Be sure to cover your aquarium and employ screen clips.
Mud Turtle, Kinosternon subrubrum, and Relatives
Four subspecies of Mud Turtle have been identified, with the eastern race being endangered in several states. Now bred in captivity, this droll little turtle is an excellent choice for novice turtle-keepers.
The attractively-marked Striped Mud Turtle, Kinosternon bauri, ranges from southern Georgia to the Florida Keys and appears regularly in the trade. It is also modest in size, and makes a fine pet.
Mud turtles may be kept as described for Musk Turtles, above.
Russian or Horsefield’s Tortoise, Testudo horsfieldi
Although small by tortoise standards (it tops out at 8.8 inches, and many are considerably smaller), the Russian Tortoise needs more room than the others I’ve included in this article. A plastic wading pool or modified rabbit cage makes a good home, especially if out-of-cage exercise is provided.
The three Russian Tortoise subspecies range from the southeastern coast of the Caspian Sea to western China and Iran, and are adapted to surprisingly cold climates.
Pet Russian Tortoises will accept many foods, but must be provided with a low-protein, high-fiber diet if they are to thrive. Unfortunately, misinformation as to their needs is widely distributed…please read this article and post any questions below.
Russian Tortoises require deep, dry substrates in which to construct nighttime sleeping pallets. If unable to do this, they often become stressed and dehydrated. A mix of sandy soil and oyster shell is ideal. Please see the article linked below for more on diet, temperatures, UVB and other aspects of tortoise care.
The minute Egyptian and Padloper Tortoises are much smaller than the Russian, but are rather delicate and best left to well-experienced keepers.
North American Spotted Turtle, Clemmys guttata
Although becoming increasingly rare in the wild, this beautiful little turtle breeds readily in captivity. Hatchlings are well-worth the high prices they command…breeders seem to know that it’s difficult to find a smaller, more attractive and personable turtle pet!
At an adult size of 3.5 – 4.5 inches, Spotted Turtles rank among the world’s smallest Chelonians. They become as tame and confiding as any Slider, and will do fine on the Musk Turtle diet described earlier. Some individuals will also take aquatic plants, kale and other greens, and insects of all kinds are relished.
Spotted Turtles frequent the still, well-vegetated waters of bogs, swamps and flooded meadows. Captives should be kept in shallow aquariums provisioned with a basking site and ample UVB exposure. The tiny hatchlings will feel stressed in bare environments, so be sure to add hideaways and floating plastic plants. Water temperatures should range from 70-74 F, with a basking site of 85-88 F.