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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.

Hot Weather Herp Tips – Summer’s Effect on Reptiles and Amphibians

Green AnoleMost herp enthusiasts know that amphibians are usually quite sensitive to warm temperatures.  However, reptiles, even those native to tropical and desert habitats, may be severely impacted as well.  Following are some general guidelines to keep in mind at the height of summer – please write in for more detailed information about the animals in your collection.

General Considerations

Even within the hottest of natural habitats, herps find ways to escape temperature extremes.  Millions of years of evolution have brought us a great many surprises in this regard – Australia’s Water Holding Frog, for example, thrives where most unprotected creatures, even reptiles, would cook in short order.  So while desert adapted animals may be better suited to withstand heat, do not assume that they will be fine without special attention. Read More »

Barbour’s Map Turtle Care and Natural History

All thirteen Map Turtle species are both fascinating and very attractive, with several being highly prized by reptile fans. Although best reserved for experienced keepers, Barbour’s Map Turtle (Graptemys barbouri) deserves more attention from both private enthusiasts and zoos. With a specialized diet and restricted range, it faces an uncertain future in the wild. I had the good fortune to work with Barbour’s Map Turtles at the Bronx Zoo, and would like to pass along some thoughts for those up to the challenge of keeping this spectacular creature.


Barbour's map turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by maimaip2000


Female Barbour’s Map Turtles are very impressive, with noticeably-broad heads and shells that may approach 12 inches in length. The narrow-headed males are so much smaller – a mere 3.2 to 5.2 inches long – as to appear to be of a different species.


The carapace is brown to olive-green, with pale yellow or white marks along its edge, and is topped by 2 spine-like ridges. Yellow stripes decorate the neck and legs, and there are blotches of yellow behind the eyes.


Ringed map turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Eekhoorntje

Other Map Turtles, while smaller, exhibit a wide array of carapace “decorations”, colors and habits.  You can read more about some of these in the articles linked below.  Pictured here is the spectacular Ringed Map Turtle (G. oculifera).


Range and Habitat

The range of this USA endemic is restricted to the Apalachicola River System in the Florida Panhandle and Georgia.


Type habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Sallicio

Barbour’s Map Turtle is largely limited to clear, limestone-bottomed streams that contain numerous fallen branches and trees. Highly aquatic, it spends much time basking on logs, plunging into the water when disturbed. The Barbour’s Map Turtle feeds only in water, and, except when nesting, rarely travels far from shore.


The Aquarium

These large, active turtles require spacious homes. While a 55 gallon aquarium might suit a small male, females need tanks of 125 – 200 gallon capacity, or commercial turtle tubs and ponds.


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, all map turtles need a dry surface on which to bask. Commercial turtle docks will suffice for small specimens. Cork bark, wedged or affixed via silicone to the aquarium’s sides, is a good option for adults.



Turtles 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.



Bare-bottomed aquariums are best, as gravel traps food and wastes, greatly complicating cleaning, and may be swallowed along with food.


Light and Heat

Heliothermic turtles (those that bask) require UVB radiation in captivity. If a florescent bulb is used (the Zoo Med 10.0 Bulb provides high UVB output), be sure that the turtle can bask within 6-12 inches of it. Mercury vapor 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 72-80 F should be maintained. An incandescent spotlight bulb should be used to warm the basking site to 90 F.



Barbour’s Map Turtles will eat or chase fishes, newts and aquatic frogs.


Females and juveniles may get along, but be prepared to house them separately as aggression often develops over time. Males often harass females with mating attempts, and may stress or bite them in the process; adult males cannot be kept together.


Freshwater clams

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Boldie


In the wild, female Barbour’s Map Turtles feed almost entirely upon fresh water mussels, snails and crayfish. Males take smaller snails, insects, crayfish, and fish.


Pets should be offered a diet comprised largely of snails, crayfish, and mussels, along with whole fishes, earthworms and prawn. Those under my care accepted apple snails and other native and introduced species that I collected and bred, European land snails (introduced in NY, and also available in seafood markets), freshwater mussels and clams, periwinkles, crayfish, shiners, minnows, green crabs and fiddler crabs.


Goldfish should be used sparingly, if at all, as a steady goldfish diet has been linked to kidney and liver disorders in other turtle species. A high quality commercial turtle chow can comprise up to 30% of the diet. A cuttlebone should be available to supplement the calcium provided by whole fishes and similar foods.


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



Field studies indicate that females take 20 or more years to reach breeding age. This fact, along with their small natural range and past over-collection for the pet trade, threatens the future of the Barbour’s Map Turtle. Reproduction has not been well-studied in the wild, but pets have produced 6-9 eggs in June and July.


Gravid 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; please see article linked below). 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.


The eggs may be incubated in moist vermiculite at 82-86 F for 60-85 days. Please post below for further details concerning captive reproduction.



These shy turtles adjust well to captivity if provided proper conditions, but they may not become as responsive as other map turtles. All turtles are capable of administering powerful bites and scratches when frightened, and must be handled with care.




Further Reading

Nesting Sites for Captive Turtles

Choosing the Best Turtle Filter

Slider, Map and Painted Turtle Care



Turtles and Tortoises: 5 You Should Never Keep as Pets

FI WITH ALL SNAPPERSo as not to alienate the many hardcore, dedicated turtle keepers among my readers, I’ll start off by qualifying the title. I know people who do quite well with 4 of the 5 species discussed in this article. But in addition to being very well-experienced, these folks have both the financial means and space to meet the challenges posed by these unique creatures. People who, for example, keep 2,000+ individual turtles in good health and can devote entire floors of commercial warehouses or 80 privately-owned ponds to their hobby (or “obsession”, as some may say!). Of course, the turtles covered here can be kept by those of more modest means, but they are, in general, not suitable for most private collections. Please be sure to post your own thoughts and experiences concerning these and similar species below, thanks.


To be honest, there’s no denying the allure of large, interesting turtles, and I’ve been most fortunate in having had the chance to indulge my passion for them. My own experiences with the turtles listed below came via jobs with animal importers in NYC decades ago, and later through a career at the Bronx and Staten Island Zoos. Thanks in part to a “turtle-centric” Bronx Zoo curator, the opening of a 77,000 gallon Asian river exhibit allowed me to work with large turtles on a grand scale. Another unique opportunity came in 1997, with the seizure of nearly 10,000 turtles of several species in Guangzhou, China. Many were sent to the USA, where we helped to place them in private and public collections (please see the article linked below).


Fly River Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Junkyardsparkle

Fly River Turtle (Carettochelys insculpta)

Unless you are another Fly River Turtle, it’s hard not to like these engaging creatures (they are notoriously aggressive towards one another). Equipped with a pig’s nose, sea turtle-like flippers and an abiding curiosity, they are among the most unique turtles one can imagine. They are also very responsive…those I cared for would swim about my legs when I entered their exhibit, soliciting food and rubbing against me. One in the Bronx Zoo’s collection is now at least 70 years of age.


Unfortunately, despite being protected within their native range, Fly River Turtle hatchlings are still being collected and sold. They are among the most active of the world’s turtles, and even small ones require far more room than most people can provide. Adults may top 40 lbs. in weight, and are nearly impossible to accommodate at home. They rarely stop swimming, and my group seemed crowded even in a 77,000 gallon exhibit. And despite all that space, battles were a daily occurrence – how they managed to breed I’ll never know (literally, since the eggs incubated unseen within the exhibit!). A susceptibility to fungal and bacterial infections, often centered on the carapace, adds to the difficulties involved in keeping these unusual turtles.


Nile Softshells

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Lena Levin

Nile Softshell Turtle (Trionx triunguis)

Although certain populations are in decline, this huge aquatic turtle has a large range, and seems to be doing well in some areas. Youngsters occasionally appear in the trade, where they are quickly snapped-up despite steep price tags.


All softshells are active and interesting, but the Nile may reach 4 feet in length – far too large for all but an outdoor pond in the appropriately-warm region.


They can be quite aggressive as well. I’ll never forget a sub-adult kept by a friend. When approached, it would paddle out to the rim of its pool and seemingly “patrol” the area, with the head held high above the surface. Further advances were met with a lightning-fast strike.


Spurred Tortoise

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Baseballchck02

African Spurred Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata)

This is the most commonly-kept of the giant Chelonians. They differ from the others covered here in that captive born hatchlings are readily and inexpensively available. They also grow much faster – few novices can imagine that their new palm-sized pet may reach 60 pounds in weight within 5 years, and eventually top 200 pounds. Proper accommodations necessitate an outdoor enclosure in a dry, warm locale. A ½ acre exhibit proved too small for a pair of 80 pounders under my care, and they pushed through or burrowed under a surprising array of barriers.


African Spurred Tortoises are extremely responsive to people, being described as “dog-like” by many. But despite an innate hardiness, they have very specific dietary needs which are misunderstood by many sellers and new owners. And as you can see from the terrier-tortoise story in the article linked below, they are also very tough customers.


Malayan Snail-Eating Turtle (Malayemys subtrijuga)

A delicate constitution rather than large size leads me to recommend against keeping this 6 inch-long Southeast Asian beauty. Fortunately, they now rarely if ever appear in the US trade, but untold numbers are still collected for Asian food markets.


The Malayan Snail-Eating Turtle first caught my eye decades ago, when it sometimes showed up, unexpected and un-named, mixed in with other imports. I read what little information I could find, and did manage to induce several to feed upon the 2-3 aquatic snail species that I collected and bred for them. However, then as now, this was not enough to sustain them long term.


Field studies have revealed that youngsters feed largely upon two snail species. Some adults add mussels, insects, fish and other items to the diet, but even these fail to thrive in zoos or private collections. I’ve spoken with people who have kept them in seemingly perfect situations, but all wind up frustrated. I continue to look for clues to their proper husbandry…please post below if you have any insights.


Alligator snapping turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany

Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macroclemmys temminckii)

The old fellow I’m posing with in this article’s first photo tips the scales at 206 pounds – is there any reason to discuss why this species might not be the best choice for most folks!? Looking more dinosaur-like than even the Common Snapping Turtle, Alligator Snapper hatchlings are produced by a few private breeders. Small and sedentary, and sporting their famous “fishing lure”, it easy to see why they are so hard to resist (I feel the same about Common Snappers, and hatch eggs each year despite first doing so over 50 years ago!).


As this largest of the Western Hemisphere’s aquatic turtles is in dire straits in the wild, captive breeding efforts are needed – but this majestic beast is best left to those with private ponds surrounded by nesting beaches.



Further Reading

Are You Ready for an African Spurred Tortoise?

Working with the World’s Largest Freshwater Turtles



Choosing the Best Turtle Filters: 10 Vital Points

Red Eared Sliders

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Flicka

Red Eared Sliders and other semi-aquatic and aquatic turtles have just about everything one could ask for in a reptile pet – fascinating behaviors, responsiveness, breeding potential, beautiful coloration and shell patterns and with proper care, the ability to outlive scores of dogs and other “lesser beasts”.   But however how much we may enjoy them (and I know folks with collections numbering 100 to 2,000+!), keeping their water clean, both for clarity and health reasons, can be a frustrating and time consuming task. Today I’ll review some useful points to consider when deciding upon a filter. Please post your own experiences, thoughts, and questions below.


mediaA Note on the Various Models

We turtle enthusiasts are fortunate to have available a huge array of different filters designed for use with turtles. But when you consider also the traditional fish filters that also suit turtles, the choices can be overwhelming. I favor the Zoo Med Turtle Clean (please see photo) for most species, but submersible models, basking site/filter combinations, hanging types and others are all useful in certain situations. Please post below for detailed information on your particular turtle and aquarium.


Ease of Maintenance

However well-intentioned we may be, filter media changes tend to be put-off if they take too much time and effort. This becomes ever more important as one’s turtle collection grows. If you think this may be a concern, consider filters that require mere seconds to maintain, such as the Tetra Whisper In-Tank Filter.



Spotted, Bog and other turtles adapted to slow-moving water bodies cannot abide strong currents in their aquarium; the same is true for hatchlings of nearly all species. An overly-powerful filter outflow can even be a source of stress to large Cooters and Map Turtles, many of which are good swimmers that inhabit large rivers.


Some filters, such as Zoo Med’s Turtle Clean and the Ovation Submersible, have spray bars that allow us to control the force and direction of the filter’s output. Rocks and other objects may be used to modify the outflow of other models.



Soft-shelled Turtles, young Common Snappers, Reeves Turtles and many others fare best when kept at a water depth that allows the head to break the surface without the need for swimming. Filters designed primarily for use with fish generally do not function in partially-filled aquariums. Fortunately, most hanging, canister, and submersible turtle filters will work in shallow water…as low as 2 inches in some cases.


Water Changes

Bear in mind that regular partial water changes will be necessary, even with powerful filters. In easily-serviced tanks, this fact has allowed me to use small, inexpensive filters which would not be sufficient if frequent water changes were difficult to carry-out.


Feed Outside of the Aquarium!

Removing your turtles from the aquarium for feeding is perhaps the most important step you can take towards easing both your own and the filter’s workload. Please see the article linked below for further information.


Indian Flap-shell Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Adityamadhav83

Eliminate Substrate Where Possible

Gravel and river rocks will add to the difficulties involved in keeping your water clear; impactions from swallowed substrate are also a concern. Chinese and other Softshells do best when a sandy substrate is provided, but most others can be kept in bare-bottomed aquariums. Regularly sweeping a brine shrimp net across the tank’s bottom will aid in maintaining water quality.


Consider Your Pet’s Size and Vigor

Turtles are very hard on filters, heaters and decorations, sometimes seeming to take a perverse pleasure in destroying our efforts on their behalf! Look into the size and power of suction cups, and how intake tubes attach to hanging filters, before making your decision. Please post below if you need information on specific models.


Use the Largest Enclosure Possible

Fish keepers learned long ago that larger aquariums are “more forgiving” of water quality mistakes than are small tanks. While there are many variables, the same holds true for turtles. Even if you keep small species, always provide them with as much space as is feasible. You’ll be able to use a more powerful filter, and water changes may be less critical…plus, you’ll improve your turtle’s quality of life and be treated to a variety of interesting observations.


Backyard pond

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Tomwsulcer

Consider Outdoor Ponds

If weather and space (and finances!) permit, koi and goldfish ponds and filters are wonderful options. Nothing tops natural sunlight and an influx of insects in maintaining turtle health, and egg-deposition sites, almost impossible to include in aquariums, are easily arranged.



Further Reading

The Best Turtle Filters

Turtle Water Quality

Slider, Map and Painted Turtle Care

Asian Leaf Turtle Care and Conservation: A Zookeeper’s Thoughts

Asian Leaf turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Wibowo Djatmiko

As part of my work for the Bronx Zoo’s reptile department, I once assisted in the rehabilitation and placement of nearly 10,000 Asian turtles confiscated from southern China and forwarded to Florida (please see article linked below). Included among the Spotted Pond Turtles, Painted Terrapins, Spiny Turtles were a great many Asian Leaf Turtles (Cyclemys dentata). This impressive turtle had been a great favorite of mine ever since we first crossed paths decades earlier, during my time working for NYC animal importers, and later on in zoo collections. Like many Southeast Asian turtles, this species is in severe decline, and has been extirpated from large portions of its range. Fortunately, Asian Leaf Turtles fare well in the hands of experienced owners. Those interested in turtle conservation can find no more worthwhile species to work with…and, as a bonus, they are extremely interesting and responsive!


Range and Habitat

The Asian Leaf Turtle’s range extends from eastern India south and east through Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia to the Philippines. Although the range is large, local extinctions are commonplace. Collection for the food and medicinal trades has devastated wild populations, so please be sure to purchase only captive-bred individuals.


Habitat type

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Marshman

It is found along shallow streams, ponds and marshy areas, and in nearby thickets. Youngsters spend most of their time in water, while adults forage on land as well.


The carapace, which is almost round in outline and somewhat domed, can be olive, tan, black, brown or deep mahogany in color; thin, reddish-orange stripes mark the head and neck. The edge of the carapace bears spine-like projections, which are much more distinct in juveniles than adults.


Adults average 8-10 inches in length.


Captive Temperament

Although initially shy, Asian Leaf Turtles adjust to captivity quickly, and soon learn to feed from the hand. Most owners describe them as “amazingly-responsive,” and longevities in excess of 30 years have been recorded.


Males often harass females with mating attempts, and may stress or bite them in the process.  In addition, males cannot be kept together, as they will usually fight.



Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Wibowo Djatmiko

The Terrarium

Hatchlings are highly aquatic, but rather poor swimmers. The water in a hatchling’s aquarium should be of a depth that allows the turtle to breath at the surface without needing to swim, i.e. 1-2 inches. The aquarium should be equipped with an easily-accessed basking site, UVB bulb, water heater, filter, and floating plastic or live plants under which the shy youngsters can hide.


Bare-bottomed aquariums are preferable, as gravel greatly complicates cleaning.


Adults do best in custom-made enclosures that measure at least 3’ x 4’ in area; outdoor maintenance is ideal when weather permits. Plastic-based rabbit cages and cattle troughs can also be modified as turtle homes.


A pool of shallow water should occupy approximately half of the cage’s area. Suitable hiding spots are important to the well-being of pet turtles; these include deep substrates into which your turtles can burrow and commercial turtle huts.  Cypress bark and similar commercial products, or a mix of topsoil, peat and sphagnum moss, may be used as a substrate.


The ambient temperature should be maintained at 75-85 F, with a basking temperature of 90 F.



The Asian Leaf Turtle’s appetite knows no bounds…in the wild, fish, tadpoles, snails, carrion, insects, and fruit are all taken with equal relish. Pets should be offered a diet comprised largely of whole animals such as earthworms, snails, insects, crayfish, prawn, minnows, an occasional pre-killed pink mouse and a variety of fruits (figs are a special favorite). Goldfish should be used sparingly, if at all, as a steady goldfish diet has been linked to kidney and liver disorders in other turtles.


A high quality commercial turtle chow can comprise up to 50% of the diet. I prefer Zoo Med’s turtle diets for this and similar species.


The calcium requirements of Asian Leaf Turtles, especially growing youngsters and gravid females, are quite high. All foods (other fish and pellets) should be powdered with Repti-Calcium or another reptile calcium supplement. A cuttlebone may also be left in the cage. Vitamin/mineral supplements such as ReptiVit should be used 2-3 times weekly.


Juvenile showing serrated plastron

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Wibowo Djatmiko

A Note Concerning Water Quality

Turtles are messy feeders, and quickly foul even well-filtered aquariums. Removing your pets to a plastic storage container for feeding will lessen the filter’s workload and help to maintain good water quality.


Partial water changes (i.e. 50 % weekly) are also very useful. Some folks find it easier to maintain Asian Leaf Turtles in plastic storage containers that can easily be emptied and rinsed.



During the breeding season, the plastron becomes somewhat flexible to allow for the passage of the 2-4 unusually-large eggs. Females sometimes have difficulty passing their eggs, especially if the diet lacks sufficient calcium.


Gravid 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. Gravid females that do not nest should be seen by a veterinarian as egg retention always leads to a fatal infection (egg peritonitis). Two to five clutches may be produced each year. Oxytocin injections are usually effective in inducing egg deposition.



Further Reading

The Asian Turtle Crisis

Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle Care

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