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Contains articles and advice on a wide variety of turtle and tortoise species. Answers and addresses questions on species husbandry, captive status, breeding, news and conservation issues concerning turtles and tortoises.

East African Black Mud Turtle Care: a Herpetologist’s Thoughts

West African Mud Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Loran

I was first introduced to the East African Black Mud Turtle, or African Mud Turtle, (Pelusios subniger) when working for a NYC animal importer many years ago, and they have remained great favorites of mine to this day. In common with many species that have evolved in harsh environments, African Mud Turtles are among the hardiest of reptile pets; longevities in excess of 30 years have been recorded. Perhaps due to their somewhat drab coloration, these interesting, responsive turtles are often overlooked, but that is a mistake – all the private and professional keepers to whom I’ve recommended them have been most pleased.

 

Description

The dark brown to black carapace is broad and oval-shaped, and averages 6-8 inches in length; some individuals may approach 10 inches. The neck is retracted into the shell by being “folded” to the side, as is seen in the South American side-necked turtles.

 

West African Mud Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by J-Moss

Classification

The African Mud Turtle is placed in the family Pelomedusidae, along with 26 relatives; 2 subspecies have been described. It is sometimes confused with the superficially similar (and equally hardy) West African Mud Turtle (Pelosius castaneus) and the African Helmeted Turtle (Pelomedusa subrufa); please see photos.  All may be kept as described here.

 

Range

The African Mud Turtle’s huge range extends across much of eastern Africa, from Burundi and Tanzania, south and west to Congo, Zambia and Botswana. It also occurs on Madagascar, the Seychelles, and several nearby islands, and has been introduced to Mauritius and, of all places, the Caribbean island of Guadalupe (I’m guessing there are some roaming about south Florida as well!). The Seychelles population is considered to be a distinct subspecies.

 

Habitat

Largely aquatic, the African Mud Turtle lives in well-vegetated rivers, marshes and swamps, as well as in seasonally flooded pans (low areas that hold water for a time) within savannas. Individuals occupying temporary water bodies burrow into the mud and aestivate (become dormant) or travel across land when their habitats dry out.

 

Like the Helmeted Turtle, the African Mud Turtle is often seen in water holes frequented by zebra, elephants and other large mammals.

 

Water hole habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Babakathy

Behavior in Captivity

African Mud Turtles quickly learn to “beg” for food as soon as their owner appears, and make excellent, responsive pets. They become quite bold once acclimated to captivity, and do well in busy locations.   If provided proper accommodations, captive breeding is possible (please post below for details).

 

Quite powerful, they are capable of administering severe bites and scratches when frightened, and must be handled carefully.

 

The Aquarium

African Mud Turtles spend most of their lives in water, but are more “bottom crawlers” than swimmers. Their habitat needs parallel those of the American mud and musk turtles. The aquarium’s water should be of a depth that allows the turtle to breath while it is standing on the bottom of the tank (i.e. without having to swim to the surface). If provided with easy access to land, adults can also be kept in deeper water. The water area should be stocked with driftwood and other structures that can be used as sub-surface resting sites.

 

Hatchlings should be kept in low water…just enough so that they can breathe without swimming. Floating live or plastic plants will provide youngsters with security…they are on the menus of many African predators, and remain shy for a time!

 

A single small adult might get by in a 40 gallon aquarium, but a 55 gallon or larger tank is preferable.

 

Zoo Med’s Turtle Tub, wading pools, and koi ponds can be fashioned into excellent African Mud Turtle habitats. Outdoor housing is ideal, assuming that raccoons and other predators can be excluded.

 

A dry basking surface is necessary. Commercial turtle docks and ramps work for smaller specimens, but large adults may sink anything that is not affixed to the glass with silicone adhesive. Cork bark wedged between the aquarium’s sides is another option.

 

Filtration

Turtles are messy feeders and very hard on water quality. Unless the enclosure can be emptied and cleaned several times weekly, a powerful submersible turtle filter or canister filter will be necessary. 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.

 

Please see the articles under “Further Reading” for more on water quality and filtration.

 

African Helmeted Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Thomas Brown

Substrate

African Mud Turtles are best kept in bare-bottomed aquariums; gravel traps waste material, greatly complicating cleaning, and may also be swallowed.

 

Light

A source of UVB radiation is essential. Natural sunlight is best, but it must be direct, as glass and plastic filter-out UVB rays.

 

If a standard florescent bulb is used (the Zoo Med 10.0 UVB Bulb is ideal), be sure that the turtle can bask within 6-12 inches of it. High-output florescent UVB bulbs and mercury vapor bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances.

 

Heat

Water temperatures of 78-82 F should be maintained. Large individuals may break typical aquarium heaters, so choose a model designed for use with turtles. An incandescent bulb should be employed to heat the basking site to 90-95 F.

 

Feeding

Wild African Mud Turtles take a huge variety of foods, including fish, tadpoles, snails, carrion, insects, frogs and small snakes. Aquatic and terrestrial plants have been reported in the diets of some populations as well.

 

tp53041Pets should be offered a diet comprised largely of whole animals such as fish, earthworms, snails, pre-killed pink mice, crayfish and prawn. Whole freshwater fishes such as minnows and shiners are the best source of calcium for turtles, and provide other important nutrients not present in prepared foods. Offer fish at least once weekly. A steady goldfish diet has been implicated in liver problems in other species, so use these sparingly if at all. Cuttlebones or turtle calcium blocks will also be accepted by many individuals.

 

Other important food items include various turtle treat foods and freeze-dried krill or shrimp. Crickets, butterworms, calci-worms, roaches and other invertebrates will also be consumed with gusto.

 

A high quality commercial turtle chow (the various Zoo Med pellets are my favorites) can comprise up to 50% of the diet. Reptomin Food Sticks and trout chow also provide excellent nutrition, and may be offered regularly.

 

Breeding

Gravid (egg-bearing) females usually become restless and may refuse food. They should be removed to a large container (i.e. 5x the length and width of the turtle) provisioned with 6-8 inches of slightly moist soil and sand. Females that do not nest should be seen by a veterinarian as egg retention always leads to a fatal infection (egg peritonitis); oxytocin injections usually resolve the problem quickly.

 

The 6 -18 eggs may be incubated in moist vermiculite at 82-85 F for 55-80 days.

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

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.

 

Further Reading

Turtle Water Quality

Prepared Diets for Turtles

 

Reptiles and Amphibians in Outdoor Pens or Ponds: Preparing for Winter

Backyard pond

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Nowis

I’ve always enjoyed keeping my herp pets, and those I’ve cared for in zoos, in outdoor ponds and exhibits. I see a wider variety of behaviors and have better breeding results, and the access to natural sunlight and wild insects is very beneficial for the animals. The arrival of winter, however, ends the fun and brings special challenges. Today I’ll cover indoor and outdoor hibernation of terrestrial and aquatic turtles and frogs, and review what to do if you wish to keep your pets active year-round.

 

General Considerations

Hibernation is risky under the best of circumstances. Each spring, I see evidence of winter die-offs among free-living reptiles and amphibians. The safest option for most pet owners is to keep your animals active and feeding throughout the winter.

 

Reptiles and amphibians native to temperate climates may not reproduce unless subjected to period of dormancy. However, in many cases a short, cool resting period will suffice – true “winter” in not needed.   Details vary widely as to species, so please post below for further information.

 

Green frogs in amplexus

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Greenfrogmaster

It has been theorized that hibernation enhances the long-term health of those species that do so in the wild, but there seems to be nothing of substance published to this effect. During my long career in zoos, I’ve kept hundreds of temperate zone species active and breeding year-round for many years. In my personal collection, a number of North American natives, including 30-45 year-old-turtles and salamanders aged 20-35 years, have never experienced dormancy.

 

Animals subjected to hibernation must be healthy, well-hydrated, and possessed of ample fat reserves; a vet exam in early autumn is recommended.

 

Depending upon the species and the size of the individual, pre-hibernation preparation should include a fast of 1-4 weeks in duration (please post below for further information).

 

Eastern Box Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Stephen Friedt

Outdoor Hibernation

Box Turtles and Toads

I’ve had good results by allowing Eastern Box Turtles and American Toads to dig down into the soil and leaf litter within their pens. However, the ground must be loosened in the fall, and I always add a 6-12 inch layer of fallen leaves to the surface. Note: although many people keep American Wood Turtles in largely-terrestrial pens, they spend the winter at the bottom of streams, not on land.

 

The pen should be exposed to rainfall year-round, as terrestrial turtles and toads require somewhat moist hibernation sites. Drainage must be provided…I’ve only left animals outdoors in bottomless pens, so that water does not pool.

 

Eastern Painted Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Greg Schechter

Aquatic Turtles and Frogs

Red-Eared Sliders, Painted Turtles, Green Frogs, American Bullfrogs and similar species usually overwinter underwater, beneath mud and leaf litter. Unless you are well-experienced or have expert guidance, I would not recommend trying to keep these creatures outdoors for the winter.

 

Dormant turtles absorb oxygen via the cloaca, while amphibians utilize diffusion through the skin. Your pond water’s oxygen level is, therefore, critical, but we have little information on any species’ exact requirements. Water depth is also a concern.

 

Aerators and surface heaters designed for use with koi and goldfish can be employed if you wish to keep your aquatic pets outdoors. You can read more about general winter pond preparations on ThatFishBlog…please see the links below.

 

I have had success in overwintering some aquatic species outdoors (i.e. Sliders, Snappers, Musk, Mud, Spotted and Painted Turtles, Green and Bullfrogs, Northern Watersnakes) but my best results were in large outdoor zoo exhibits rather than backyard ponds.

 

In both my pens and natural situations, I was several times surprised to find American Bullfrogs and Green Frogs hibernating on land – they missed the “go to the pond memo”, I guess!

 

Indoor Hibernation

Indoor hibernation is a bit less risky in some ways, as you can monitor the animals closely and avoid the extreme conditions that occur outdoors. However, it is still not advisable for pet-keepers lacking considerable experience.

 

American Box Turtles can be over-wintered in moist sphagnum moss at 38-42 F. A refrigerator designated for this purpose is ideal, but attics, garages and similar areas can be used if temperatures are appropriate. American Toads and their relatives can be maintained in the same manner, but they usually remain active and feeding down to 55 F or so, and so are easier to “keep awake”.

 

Keeping your pets in an unheated or extra-cool room of the house is not satisfactory. At temperatures too low for normal activity, yet above those needed for dormancy (i.e. 50-65 F for many temperate zone species), food reserves are used and the immune system fails to protect from respiratory and other infections.

While aquatic turtles and frogs have been successfully over-wintered in aerated water at 40 F, I would not advise taking the risk.

 

Avoiding Hibernation

Spotted, Wood, Box and Painted Turtles, and others with similar life histories, may be kept active at their normal temperatures year-round. I tend to maintain them at the lower end of their normal active range, but provide a warmer basking site. If the animals are in good health, a dip to 60 F at night will do no harm (different species vary in this regard – please post below for specific information).

 

Gray Treefrogs in amplexus

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Fredlyfish4

Temperate zone frogs and toads, including Fire-bellied Toads, American Bullfrogs, Gray Treefrogs and Leopard Frogs remain active and feeding at normal to low (i.e. 55 F) room temperatures. The change from summer highs seems to do them good, and in some cases (i.e. Fire-bellied Toads), may also stimulate breeding behavior.

 

Tortoises

Russian and Greek Tortoises, along with several other species, experience cool to cold winters in some portions of their natural ranges. However, it is difficult to successfully induce dormancy among captives, either in the home or outdoors. Please post below if you wish to attempt this, and I’ll send along specific information.

 

Internal Controls on Behavior

Circadian rhythms, which might be likened to “internal clocks”, govern behavior to varying degrees. For example, Indian Gharials under my care for 14 years refused food in tune with the cool season in their native range, despite being kept at optimal temperatures (they lost virtually no weight during the 3 month period, however).

 

Among pets, wild-caught individuals of certain species may refuse food and become less active even when kept warm during the winter. In some cases, captive-born youngsters of the same animals will feed normally all winter long. Captive born individuals of other species may enter semi-dormancy despite being many generations removed from the wild. For species with large ranges, the origin of the parent stock may be important. I’ve had experience with this scenario in a number of reptiles and amphibians, and am very interested in learning more…please post your observations and questions below.

 

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

 

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.

 

Further Reading

 Preparing Your Pond for Winter

Bullfrogs in Backyard Ponds

Red-eared Sliders in Backyard Ponds

My Experiences with Snake Necked Turtles in Zoos and at Home

Giant Snake Necked Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Sam Fraser-Smith

Among the Snake Necked Turtles of the family Chelidae we find some of the world’s most unique and effective reptilian predators. I’ve had the good fortune of knowing many, including a few that were newly-described; all have been fascinating to keep. From the massive Giant Snake Neck (Chelodina expansa), which snatches fish with blinding speed, to the bizarre Mata Mata (Chelus fimbriatus), which sucks them down like a vacuum cleaner, all have their surprises and secrets. While many are suited only for experienced keepers with room to spare, others are quite hardy and suitable for most serious turtle enthusiasts.

 

Classification

The world’s 56 Snake Necked Turtles are classified in the family Chelidae. Their trademark necks, which are snake-like in both length and striking speed, render the family unique among all the world’s turtles.

 

WITH LARGE MATA MATADescription

Snake Necked Turtles range from 6 to over 20 inches in length. Those with the most impressively-long necks are found in the genus Chelodina. Most of those native to Australia, New Guinea and Indonesia are strong swimmers with streamlined carapaces and fully-webbed feet. Others, such as the New Guinea Snapping Turtle (Elseya novaeguineae) have shorter (but still long!) necks and somewhat domed shells. All withdraw the neck into the shell on a sideways angle rather than straight back, as is typical for “regular” turtles.

 

The South American members of the family vary greatly in appearance, and do not have the outlandishly-long necks typical of their Australasian cousins. One of these, the Mata Mata (Chelus fimbriatus), is perhaps the world’s most unusual turtle. The broad flattened head of this aquatic creature, adorned with skin tubercles and flaps, and bearing a long, pointed snout, does not appear to belong to a turtle…or to any animal for that matter!

Neck withdrawn (New Guinea Snapping Turtle)The skin flaps may attract fish, which are sucked into the huge mouth when the throat distends, creating a vacuum-like action. Those I’ve kept (please see photo) have also accepted tadpoles, shrimp and other aquatic invertebrates. Ranging from Venezuela and Surinam to Columbia, eastern Peru and northern Brazil, this black water river denizen commands high prices in the pet trade, and is best reserved for well-experienced keepers.

 

Range

Snake Necked Turtles are found in Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia and South America. With the exception of the equally-unusual Fly River Turtle, they are the only freshwater turtles native to Australia and New Guinea.

 

Habitat

Most Australasian species spend the majority of their lives in water, emerging only to bask or deposit eggs. South American representatives vary in their habits – the Mata Mata Turtle is completely aquatic but others, such as the Twist Necked Turtle (Platemys platycephala), spend some time on land.

 

Depending upon the species, fast-moving rivers, swamps, lakes, flooded grasslands, tidal streams and other aquatic habitats are occupied.

 

Twist necked Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by http://www.birdphotos.com

Care and Feeding

Snake Necked Turtles are highly carnivorous, although some add fallen fruit and aquatic plants to the diet. Those with very elongated necks, such as the Giant Snake Necked Turtle (Chelodina expansa), strike at swimming fish with lightning speed, and rarely miss. In my experience, only the Common Snapping Turtle and some of the Softshells (most notably the huge Narrow-Headed Softshell, Chitra indica), can equal their amazing striking speed; none snare fish so efficiently.

 

Fish are favored by most, but tadpoles, crayfish, snails, carrion, worms, and insects are also taken; larger species occasionally add small lizards, frogs, snakes, and mammals to the diet.

 

Pet Snake Necks fare best on a diet comprised largely of whole organisms such as earthworms, occasional pre-killed pink mice, crayfish and fresh water minnows and shiners. A steady diet of goldfish has been linked to several health concerns among Mata Mata Turtles, so in zoos we avoid or strictly limit their use in general.   Super mealworms, roaches, crickets and other insects can be used to vary the diet. Many refuse dry turtle foods, at least initially, but the products sold by Zoo Med and other well-respected companies are worth experimentation.

 

The calcium requirements of all species are likely quite high, with whole freshwater fishes being the most important source of this mineral. Some have done well without UVB exposure, but most successful private and professional keepers provide access to a UVB bulb.

 

All Australasian and most South American species are sizable, active turtles that require spacious aquariums equipped with sturdy basking sites, heaters and powerful filtration. While a 55 gallon aquarium might suit the smallest Snake Necks, larger species need tanks of several hundred gallon capacity, or commercial turtle tubs and ponds.

Temperatures should range from 72-80 F, with a basking site of 85-95 F, but the requirements of each species vary somewhat. Please post below for detailed information on the individual turtles in which you are interested.

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

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.

 

Further Reading

Reptile Aquariums and the Nitrogen Cycle

Nest Sites for Captive Turtles

Spotted Turtle Care: Is This Beauty the Perfect Small Turtle Pet?

Spotted turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Howcheng

The Spotted Turtle measures only 4-5 inches when fully grown, and is brightly-colored, alert, friendly and hardy…small wonder it is esteemed by turtle keepers worldwide. Although the days when I could count on finding several each summer are long gone (it is now rare in the wild), captive-bred individuals are readily available – if quite expensive! But those who give this endearing little turtle a place in their collections become instant fans, and never regret the price they paid. Shallow water specialists, Spotted Turtles are infinitely easier to care for, and require far less space, than do Sliders, Painted Turtles or any of the other more commonly-kept semi-aquatic species.

 

Range

The Spotted Turtle inhabits a large area of North America, but it is unevenly-distributed, and nowhere to be found in abundance. Its range extends from southern Ontario and Quebec south along the Atlantic Coastal Plain to central Florida and west through Pennsylvania to northern Indiana and northeastern Illinois.

 

Spotted Turtle habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Valerius Tygart

Habitat

This unique turtle is a true habitat specialist, being restricted to the shallow, thickly-vegetated waters of bogs, swamps, sloughs and other marshy wetlands. Hatchlings are highly aquatic, but adults spend some time in moist fields and woodlands. Over-collection and habitat loss have decimated populations, which are now protected; please be sure to purchase only captive-bred individuals.

 

Description

The bright to light yellow spots that mark the black carapace render the Spotted Turtle nearly invisible among duckweed, yet startlingly conspicuous in an aquarium. Among the world’s smallest turtles, adults measure a mere 4-5 inches in length.

 

Housing

Spotted Turtles are small but quite active, always foraging and exploring their environment. They should be provided with as much room as possible. A well-designed 20 gallon long-style aquarium is adequate for a single adult, but additional room is always appreciated.

 

The water in the aquarium should be of a depth that allows the turtle to reach the surface with its head without needing to swim. Floating plastic or live plants should be provided as cover for the always-shy hatchlings (they are on the menus of predators ranging from giant water bugs to bullfrogs, and naturally-wary!). Adults become quite bold, but still prefer aquariums with cover, driftwood, and caves to bare enclosures.

 

The aquarium should be equipped with a dry basking site, UVB bulb, heater, and powerful filtration. A water temperature range of 68-76 F, with a basking site of 88-90 F, is ideal.

 

mediaDiet

Wild Spotted Turtles feed upon fish, tadpoles, snails, carrion, insects, crayfish, shrimp, salamanders, frogs and aquatic plants. Pets should be offered a diet comprised largely of whole animals such as minnows, shiners, earthworms, snails, crayfish, and prawn. Some adults will also accept dandelion, zucchini, collard greens, apples and other produce. Roaches, crickets and other insects may also be provided. A high quality commercial turtle chow can comprise up to 60% of the diet.

 

Spinach and various cabbages may cause nutritional disorders. Goldfishes should be used sparingly, if at all, as a steady goldfish diet has been linked to kidney and liver disorders in other species.

 

A cuttlebone should be available to supplement the calcium provided by whole fishes and similar foods.

 

Feeding Note

Turtles are messy feeders, and quickly foul even well-filtered aquariums. Removing your pet to a plastic storage container at feeding time will lessen the filter’s workload and help to maintain good water quality. Partial water changes (i.e. 50 % weekly) are also very useful. Filters designed specifically for turtles, if serviced regularly, are usually preferable to those marketed for use with tropical fish. Some folks find it easier to maintain their aquatic turtles in plastic storage containers that can easily be emptied and rinsed.

 

Basking

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Davepape

Temperament

Spotted Turtles are as hardy and responsive as the more commonly-kept sliders, and are now being regularly bred by hobbyists. Although somewhat shy at first, most soon learn to rush over for food when approached. Spotted Turtles must be watched carefully if housed in groups. Males often harass females with mating attempts, and may stress or bite them in the process. Males should not be kept together, as they will usually fight.

 

Breeding

Mating and egg deposition occurs from April-August. Breeding behavior may be stimulated by a winter resting period at reduced temperatures, but this should not be attempted without expert guidance (please post below for further information).

 

Females produce 1-2 clutches of 1-8 eggs. Gravid (egg-bearing) females usually become restless and may refuse food. They should be removed to a large container (i.e. 5x the length and width of the turtle) provisioned with 6-8 inches of slightly moist soil and sand. The eggs may be incubated in moist vermiculite at 82-84 F for 50-85 days.

 

Gravid females that do not nest should be seen by a veterinarian as egg retention invariably leads to a fatal infection known as egg peritonitis. It is important to note that females may develop eggs even if unmated, and that captives may produce several clutches each year.

 

Useful Spotted Turtle Care Products (please post below for further information)

 

Commercial turtle docks 

 

Turtle filters

 

Zoo Med 10.0 UVB bulb

 

Mercury vapor bulbs

 

Incandescent (heat) bulbs

 

Aquatic turtle diets

 

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

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.

 

Further Reading

Turtle or Tortoise – Which is the Best Reptile Pet for Me?

Radiated Tortoise

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Hectonichus

Turtles and tortoises often appeal even to those who would not dream of keeping – or allowing their children to keep – a snake or lizard. Their good reputation as pets is due in part to generally amiable natures and the degree of responsiveness they exhibit to people. But the needs of these interesting reptiles are not always well-understood by first-time owners, and choosing between turtles and tortoises, and among the individual species, can be a daunting task. Today we’ll look at what is involved in turtle and tortoise ownership, so that you can decide which would be best for your particular situation. As always, please post any specific care questions you may have below.

 

Please Note

The terms “turtle” and “tortoise” are used interchangeably for some species, and in different ways throughout the world. Most commonly, “turtle” refers to semi-aquatic and aquatic animals, while “tortoise” is used for those that spend their time on land.

 

The following points are general in nature. Please see the linked articles and post below for detailed information on the care of individual species.

 

Smooth softshell

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by EyeYubel

Space Requirements

Turtles and tortoises need far more living space than most people realize, and many grow faster and larger than one might expect.

 

Among turtles, the commonly-kept Red-Eared Slider is a perfect example. Females (the larger sex) will very quickly reach 8-12 inches in length, at which point they will require a 75-100 gallon aquarium, a commercial turtle tub, or a wading pool. The smaller males, as well as some Musk, Mud, Map and Painted Turtles, might (depending upon the species) get by in a 20 to 55 gallon aquarium. Although hard to resist as hatchlings, Common Snapping Turtles and most Softshells grow very large, and they can be dangerous.

 

Tortoises generally need even more space than do turtles, with nearly all requiring a custom-built cage or fenced outdoor area. In addition to being very active, tortoises fare poorly unless provided with a thermal gradient. Thermal gradients, critical to good health, allow tortoises to regulate their body temperature by moving between hot and cooler areas (small cages quickly take-on the temperature of the basking site). Aquariums are ill-suited for use as tortoise homes, as they do not provide the ventilation (or space) required by most.

 

Pancake Tortoise

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Davepape

Life Support Equipment

All tortoises and turtles must have access to a source of UVB radiation, a heated living area, and a hot basking spot. For most owners, this translates into the purchase of UVB bulbs and fixtures, basking bulbs and fixtures, heat mats and ceramic heaters (tortoises) and aquarium heaters (turtles). Expenses can be trimmed somewhat if one keeps Mud and Musk Turtles, or those few other aquatic species that can get by without UVB if provided a proper diet.

 

Aquatic turtle tanks must also be equipped with powerful filters. Housing your pets in easily-dumped plastic bins eliminates the need for filtration, but this option has drawbacks in terms of visibility and aesthetics.

 

Tortoises hailing from deserts and other arid habitats are susceptible to respiratory infections in even slightly-humid environments. Therefore, a de-humidifier may be essential.

 

mediaDiet

It is in the area of nutrition that turtles and tortoises diverge most noticeably. With few exceptions, turtles are the easier of the two groups to maintain. Zoo Med and other commercial turtle pellets, earthworms, sun-dried or fresh shrimp and several other easily-obtained foods will keep most in good health and breeding condition. Nearly all, however, should be provided with whole minnows and similar fishes on a regular basis (these are the best source of calcium and other important nutrients).

 

Healthful tortoise diets, on the other hand, can be difficult to arrange, and the needs of the various species differ greatly. Poor nutrition is the leading cause of death among captive tortoises. Please see the linked article and post any questions you may have below.

 

Fly River Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Mistvan

Workload

I receive many questions and complaints centering on the amount of work involved in keeping turtle aquarium water clean. Turtles are messy feeders, and very hard on water quality. Powerful filters help, but partial or total water changes will still be necessary (and filtration medium needs frequent replacement).

 

Land-dwelling tortoises are fairly simple to clean-up after, unless one has a large collection or concentrates on the giants of the group. For example, a pair of 80 pound African Spurred Tortoises (“Sulcatas”) under my care at a zoo brought back memories of cleaning rhino pens as a fledgling animal keeper decades ago!

 

Human Health Considerations

Salmonella bacteria are likely present in the digestive tracts of all turtles and tortoises. 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, but are a serious concern for children and elderly or immune-compromised adults. Please speak with your family doctor and see the article linked below for further information.

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

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.

 

Further Reading

Caring for Red-Eared Sliders, Painted and Map Turtles

 

Keeping Desert, Rainforest and Grassland Tortoises

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