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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.

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.

 

Trachemys_scripta_elegans23Current

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.

 

HOLDING LITTLE SNAPPERWater Depth

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.

 

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

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.

Description

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.

 

Juvenile

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.

 

mediaFeeding

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.

 

Breeding

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.

 

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

The Asian Turtle Crisis

Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle Care

Eastern Painted Turtle Care: Keeping the USA’s Most Beautiful Turtle

PAINTED TUR, SMILEThose of us who are accustomed to seeing Eastern Painted Turtles (Chrysemys scripta scripta) in the wild and captivity sometimes take their beauty for granted. In my youth, I was able to find them quite easily near my Bronx home, and was surprised by the overseas demand when I began working for a local animal dealer. But upon close inspection, it’s easy to see why these aptly-named turtles are wildly-popular in zoos and private collections worldwide. In addition to their brilliant coloration, Eastern Painted Turtles make hardy, long-lived and responsive pets (if given proper care!). They have all the qualities that have made Red-Eared Sliders so popular, but their smaller size and calm demeanor renders them a far better choice for most turtle enthusiasts.

 

320px-Eastern_Painted_Turtle_(Chrysemys_picta_picta)Natural History

The Eastern Painted Turtle’s range extends from southern Canada along the eastern seaboard of the USA to Georgia, and west to central Alabama. Three subspecies – the Southern, Midland and Western Painted Turtles – range across southern Canada and through most of the USA to northern Mexico. All hybridize where their ranges overlap, and in captivity.

 

Type habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by FWS

Painted Turtles favor slow-moving, well-vegetated waters, and are most commonly encountered in swamps, marshes, river oxbows, creeks, and small ponds on farms and even golf courses (I caught my first specimen, as a child, by hopping a golf course fence and sloshing through its tiny pond – that incident remains my only golf-related experience!). I once was surprised to find a hatchling in a tidal river on Long Island, but have since learned that they are known to enter brackish water.

 

Turtle Behavior in Captivity

Like many semi-aquatic turtles, Eastern Painteds quickly learn to associate their owners with food, and will paddle over to beg when you approach. Ever-alert, wild individuals plunge from basking sites when startled, but pets are generally quite fearless. Most feed readily from the hand, and they may even reproduce.

 

Young painted turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by US Bureau of Land Management

Housing

Female Eastern Painted Turtles reach 7-9 inches in length, while males generally top out at 5 inches. An adult female will require a 30 to (preferably) 40 or 55 gallon aquarium; a male might make due in a 20 gallon “long-style”, 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.

 

Basking

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Tony Gamble

Although highly aquatic, Painted 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

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.

 

Southern Painted Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Suzanne L Collins (CNAH)

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

 

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

Heliothermic turtles (those that bask) require UVB exposure in captivity. Natural sunlight is the best UVB source, but be aware that glass filters-out UVB rays.

 

If a florescent bulb is used (the Zoo Med 10.0 Bulb is an excellent product), 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.

 

Western Painted Turtle plastron

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Matt Young

Heat

Water temperatures of 75-80 F should be maintained. An incandescent bulb should be used to warm the basking site to 88-90 F.

 

Companions

Painted 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 lead to stress and bite wounds.

 

Feeding

Painted Turtles 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.

 

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

 

Natural 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 ailments in other species.

 

Other important food items include earthworms, krill, freeze-dried river shrimp and crickets, waxworms and other insects.

 

Breeding

Wild females become sexually mature at age 5-10, males at age 3-5. Courting and breeding occurs in May and June, and females deposit 1-4 clutches of eggs (1-15 eggs in total) between May and July. Late-hatching young may overwinter in the nest and emerge the following spring.

 

Captive conditions may alter all of the above, so please write in for detailed information on how best to breed your pets in their particular environment.

 

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

Providing Nesting Sites to Female Turtles

Commercial Turtle Diets: Pellets, Shrimp and Prepared Foods

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

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