Wildlife rehabilitators are private citizens who care for injured, sick or orphaned animals and, whenever possible, return them to their natural habitats (un-releasable animals may sometimes be retained for educational purposes). Such work has traditionally focused on birds and mammals, but these days a growing number of caring people are focusing their efforts on turtles, frogs, snakes, alligators and other herps. Read More »
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Some of the most popular semi-aquatic (or “basking”) pet turtles, such as Red-Eared and Yellow-Bellied Sliders, Map Turtles, Cooters and Chicken Turtles, eagerly accept fish and other animal-based foods – so eagerly, in fact, that it is easy to forget that most are omnivorous, and not carnivorous, by nature.
Natural Dietary Shifts
In the wild, the world’s most popular pet turtle, the Red-Eared Slider, starts life as a meat-eater but consumes ever more aquatic plants as it matures. By adulthood, vegetation forms the bulk of the diet, although this varies a bit among populations (Red-Eared Sliders are, after all, the most adaptable of all turtles, with introduced populations thriving on every continent save Antarctica!). The same applies to the various Painted Turtles (Eastern, Midland, Southern, Western), the Chicken Turtle and the Cooters – as they mature, over 90% of the diet may be comprised of plants.
Map Turtles vary by species and population as regards their diet – most consume more plants as they mature, but tend to remain largely carnivorous. Some Map Turtles exhibit unique strategies. For example, female Barbour’s Map Turtles (Graptemys barbouri) are specialized predators of crayfishes, clams and snails, while the much smaller males take insects, carrion and plants.
Many commercial Aquatic Turtle Diets provide excellent nutrition and can serve as a dietary mainstay, and there is some evidence that diet of Reptomin and Freeze Dried Krill meets all the nutritional needs of several species.
However, I’ve always found it preferable to include a good amount of whole, natural foods in turtle diets, especially where less well-studied species are concerned. The shift from animal-based to plant-based foods is a very definite phenomenon in nature, and may very well hold the key to captive longevity and reproduction for some types of turtles.
An interesting study of the diets of wild Red-Eared Sliders and River Cooters is posted here.
Even baby Sliders will take greens, as this YouTube video shows.
Southern Painted Turtle image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Aka
Maintaining clean water is one of the biggest challenges facing aquatic turtle keepers. Here at ThatPetPlace we stock a number of filters designed especially for use with turtles. Most are submersible and will function even in very low water…one, the Turtle Cliff Filter, also doubles as a basking site and waterfall base. Today I’d like to highlight the unit I’ve found most effective in situations where very strong, effective filtration is required – the Zoo Med Turtle Clean Filter.
An Adaptable, Effective Filter
The Turtle Clean Filter is designed along the lines of aquarium fish canister filters, with separate chambers for activated carbon, filter pads and aerobic bacteria colonies, and is backed by a powerful motor (aquariums up top 60 gallons in size, and possibly larger, can be handled by Model No. 511). Unlike other canisters, it is set up next to, and not below, the aquarium.
The Turtle Clean has the largest areas for filter media of any turtle filter, and its absorbant pads are very thick and quite effective. It is very simple to clean, requires no priming, operates in as little as 1-2 inches of water and is equipped with a perforated return bar so that outflow can be adjusted. Waterfalls and turtles requiring low water levels or moderate currents are thus easy to accommodate.
I’ve used the Turtle Clean Filter on heavily stocked turtle aquariums for some time now, and am very pleased with the results. Feedback from colleagues indicates that it definitely simplifies the keeping of Red-Eared Sliders, Painted Turtles, Cooters, Snake-Necks, Mata Matas, Sidenecks and other messy feeders.
Easing the Filter’s Job
Frequent partial water changes and, if possible, feeding your turtles outside of the aquarium, will render any turtle filter more effective by lessening the volume of uneaten food and feces that must be removed.
A bare-bottomed aquarium, which enables the filter to more easily pick up solid waste, is preferable for most turtles (Soft-shelled Turtles, however, are best kept with a fine sand substrate under which they can hide).
For more tips on keeping your turtle tank water in top shape, please see Feeding Aquatic Turtles: Water Clarity.
The Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizi), was, in the 1960’s, a pet trade staple. A lack of information as to its proper care and massive habitat loss has today reduced populations to alarmingly low levels. The species is now protected, and a great deal of research has gone into its husbandry and natural history. Yet, it seems, few appreciate just how unique this animal is. Today I’d like to highlight some of its lesser known habits, and how they affect the future of the species.
Desert Tortoises are one of four tortoise species, all of the same genus, native to North America. All are terrestrial vegetarians with forelegs modified for burrowing.
An additional 49 species of tortoises inhabit Africa (where they reach their greatest diversity), Europe, South America and Asia. Tortoises are absent from Australia and Antarctica.
Desert Tortoises are found from southeastern California’s Mojave Desert, southwestern Arizona, southern Nevada and southwestern Utah south to northern Baja California and northern Sinaloa, Mexico, and on Tiburon Island in Gulf of California.
It is in the northern part of this range where we find a most unique winter survival strategy. Here, desert tortoises migrate to hilly areas at the onset of cold weather and hibernate in communal burrows that are 15-33 feet in length. It seems that a burrow of suitable length (over 15 feet) could not be dug by a single tortoise in one season, so these long-established burrows (and traditional migration routes) are critical to winter survival.
Effective conservation planning requires an understanding of such factors – permanent hibernation burrows may be far from the tortoises’ summer foraging areas, and thus not recognized as essential habitat when preserves are set aside. Populations deprived of migration routes to hibernation sites will become extinct in a single winter.
Summer nights are spent in shallow, self dug burrows that are often utilized for many years.
Good Intentions Gone Bad
Another unusual impediment to Desert Tortoise conservation arose when, with good intentions, large numbers of seemingly healthy pet tortoises were returned to the wild. These animals were responsible for introducing a virulent but difficult-to-detect respiratory illness into wild populations. Control measures are now in place in the USA.
Desert Tortoises inhabit the centerpiece exhibit of the new reptile house at the Staten Island Zoo, which I was proud to help plan several years ago. Please see the attached photo above, and visit if you are able.
A wealth of information on Desert Tortoise Conservation is posted here.
A wonderful video of a Desert Tortoise egg hatching is posted here.
Please see Part I of this article for general information concerning pet turtle shelters. Today we’ll look at meeting the needs of a few specialists.
Aquatic Bottom Dwellers
Mata Mata Turtles (Chelus fimbriatus), Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina), Alligator Snapping Turtles (Macroclemmys temmincki) and some other aquatic species prefer to burrow under plants or mud, and rarely use caves. These turtles can easily be accommodated with Hagen Suction Cup-Equipped Plants. By positioning the suction cups so that the plant just touches the bottom of the aquarium, you can create a naturalistic shelter …several plants used in together can accommodate quite large specimens.
Shallow Water/Swamp Dwellers
Bog Turtles (Clemmys muhlenbergi) and other retiring, shallow water species are usually most comfortable in heavily planted terrariums, with plenty of dead wood and moss available for hiding (please see photo). These will readily utilize artificial plants as well.
That 150 pound Spurred Tortoise you’ve raised will need a custom built “house”, but for most large terrestrial turtles, you can also use the Hagen plants described above. This actually suits tortoises quite well – in the wild most shelter within brush and under leaves, and not in “caves” per se.
Softshell Turtles of all species are specialists, and do best when provided with fine sand in which to burrow. Although excellent swimmers, they prefer to shelter below sand in shallow water, so that they can breathe by merely extending their necks to the surface. Although sand complicates cleaning, most softshells fare poorly without it.
A Hundred Year Old Home
You can also create your own shelters…broken clay flower pots are an old standby. The Common Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) pictured here has been with me for 40 years. It is posing before its very unique cave – a 100 year old tile from the roof of the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House!
The Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera spinifera) has specific habitat requirements in both captivity (please see above) and the wild, and is threatened throughout much of its range. A comprehensive recovery plan containing interesting natural history notes is posted here.