Home | Turtles & Tortoises (page 17)

Category Archives: Turtles & Tortoises

Feed Subscription

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.

Autumns Effect on Turtle, Lizard and Snake Appetites

As autumn approaches I invariably receive questions from reptile owners whose pets have lost interest in food.  This most commonly occurs among Red Eared Sliders, Box and Painted Turtles, and other North American species, but may show up in lizards and snakes as well.

Amphibians in general, and reptiles from regions without a seasonal change, are largely immune.  Bear in mind, however, that many species native to warm climates do experience a cool season – Bearded Dragons are a prime example, with certain populations hibernating in the wild.

Internal Controls on Behavior

It is common for native reptiles to slow down or stop feeding as the seasons change; often circadian rhythms (“internal clocks”) control this, and they will not feed even if kept warm. As long as the animals are otherwise in good health, they will be fine.  We are learning that reptiles have amazing abilities to alter their metabolisms to suit local conditions (please see article below).  Gharials (fish eating crocodilians) that I kept for 17 years at the Bronx Zoo went off feed annually, right in sync with wintertime in their native Pakistan.  Despite being kept at 86-92 F, and moving about daily, they lost almost no weight over their 3 month fasting period.

Keeping Turtles in Winter

Sliders, Snapping Turtles and others that refuse to feed as fall approaches can be kept in water that is at average room temperature (65-68F) or a bit higher over the winter.  Leave their UVB and basking lights on during the day, as they will continue to bask and move about.  You can offer food 1-2x per week, but they will likely not eat much.  Sick or stressed animals are another matter…please write in if you need advice.
Actually putting reptiles into true hibernation by lowering temperatures significantly is tricky, although often an important breeding stimulus.  Please write in if you need further information.

Future Research -Your Observations Needed

One thing I’ve noticed, and which I’d like to research further, is that wild-caught turtles, even if taken into captivity on the day of hatching, usually stop feeding in the winter, while captive-hatched animals of the same species feed throughout the year.  I would be very interested to hear from readers with similar or different experiences, thanks.

Further Reading

Please see Hibernation in Captive Bearded Dragons for specific information on these popular pets.

There is some amazing new information coming to light on snake metabolisms.  Please check out How Snakes Grow During Times of Food Deprivation.


Turtles Have Shells But They Still Need a Place to Hide! – Part 1

One of the most over-looked aspects of proper turtle care is the provision of a secure place to hide.  It makes sense that a hiding place would seem unnecessary – after all, turtles can simply withdraw into their shells when threatened.  However, it’s not that simple (as usual!).

Shelter Use in Nature and Captivity

Even though their shells are often hard, and offer excellent camouflage – imagine a box turtle on a forest floor or a leopard tortoise among brush – most turtles become quite stressed if denied a secure place to hide.  Even bold, long-term captives prefer a shelter, at least for sleeping.

Particularly retiring species, such as mata mata, bog and Malayan snail-eating turtles, will Snapping Turtleoften fail to thrive if kept in bare surroundings. Hatchlings, even of common snapping turtles and other aggressive species, are consumed by predators ranging from giant water bugs to herons…most are always “on guard” and will refuse to eat unless given ample cover.

Note: at 80+ pounds, the Common Snapper Pictured here is among the heaviest ever recorded. He is on exhibit at The Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery, which houses an extensive collection of native reptiles and amphibians.

Useful Shelters for Terrestrial and Aquatic Turtles

Eastern Painted TurtleThe Zoo Med Turtle Hut, available in 5 sizes, suits nearly all land-dwelling turtles.  R Zilla Rock Dens sink, and so can be used on land or underwater (check that aquatic turtles cannot lodge themselves inside too tightly, and provide larger shelters as they grow).

The Zoo Med Turtle Dock can be set up to serve both as a basking platform and hideaway for aquatic turtles.  When used in shallow water, the sloping side, top of the platform and tank’s wall form a nice underwater cave readily used by young painted, spotted, mud and other turtles.

Next time we’ll take a look at a few species that have special needs, and I’ll add a note about an old turtle of mine that hides within a unique, very old “cave”.  Please write in with your questions and comments. 

Further Reading

For an interesting report on Eastern box turtle natural history, including the use of shelters in the wild, please look here.






Looking for an Intelligent Reptile Pet? – Consider the Wood Turtle

Most turtles become quite responsive to their owners (especially near feeding time!), and a great many show impressive abilities to learn and adjust to new situations. In my experience, however, few approach the wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta, formerly Clemmys,) in these areas.

Testing Turtles

Herpetologists and experienced turtle enthusiasts consider the wood turtle to be among the most intelligent of the turtles – in lab tests, they consistently scoring higher than other species on maze and reward-association tests. In my experience, captives exhibit a degree of curiosity and problem-solving abilities not evident in other turtles.

“Thinking” before Acting?

While all turtles soon come to associate their owners with food, wood turtles rarely rush about “begging” each time one approaches their enclosure, as do other species. Instead, they most often look intently at their benefactor – deciding, it seems, if it would be “worthwhile to beg”. A group I worked with would always regard me carefully as I passed, but only scrambled for position if I carried their food trays.

These turtles were housed in a 6-foot-long cattle trough, tilted on one end to form a pool. When I drained the enclosure, they invariably gathered near the drain to snatch leftover food carried there. Turtles that missed a morsel of food would peer down the drain for some time, often changing angles to get a better view. Again, they seemed to “consider” the situation – not wasting effort trying to retrieve a food item that was unreachable.

Turtles Tricking Earthworms

Earthworms, a favorite food, are lured to the surface by stomping the front feet and the plastron against the ground. It is believed that earthworms interpret the vibrations as rain, or that the vibrations stress the worms and force them upward – hammering a piece of wood into the ground often has the same result. This is the only turtle known to employ such a technique.

While this behavior may be instinctive and does not necessarily indicate intelligence, one has to wonder why other turtles do not do so. It would be interesting to discover if all wood turtles do this, or if a degree of learning is indeed involved.

I’ll cover wood turtle care in the future. Please write in with your questions and comments. Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

Further Reading

An interesting field report on how habitat development affect wood turtles is posted at http://www.woodturtle.com/Saumure%20and%20Bider%201998.pdf.

To read more about reptile intelligence, please see my article Learning: Observations of Zoo Animals (Lizards).

Top 5 Turtle and Tortoise Care, Natural History and Conservation Websites

Turtles and tortoises are the most popular of all reptilian pets – even “non-herpers” like them – and this is reflected by the many websites devoted to Chelonian-related matters. Following are some that I have found to be especially valuable. This list is by no means exhaustive…I’ll cover others in future articles.

The New York Turtle and Tortoise Society

I’ve worked with the dedicated folks at NYTTS for many years, and they have been kind enough to feature my articles on their Florida Softshell Turtlewebsite. More important (infinitely more!) than my connection to NYTTS is their long standing relationship with legendary turtle biologist Peter Pritchard, who often speaks at the group’s day-long annual seminars. Rhom Whittaker, Mike Klemens, Roger Wood, Indraneil Das and numerous other notables have also participated in NYTTS sponsored programs.

NYTTS provides quality husbandry information and also gets involved in the hands-on work upon which the survival of so many turtle species depends. They have long provided support to Southeast Asian students studying turtle biology here in the USA and to the fine work of the Wetlands Institute and have helped in large scale rescues of confiscated turtles.

NYTTS conservation and trade issues expert Alan Salzberg publishes Herp Digest, a wonderful resource and the only free electronic herp conservation and natural history newsletter.

Tortoise Trust

Tortoise Trust is one of the reptile-world’s most highly-respected sources of information on turtle and tortoise husbandry, Geochelone pardalisconservation and natural history. Noted author and herpetologist Andy Highfield directs the organization, which is utilized by professionals and hobbyists alike.

Tortoise Trust is unique among turtle interest groups in the range of activities it sponsors – courses, field trips, political action, research efforts – and in the numerous top notch publications it has generated (in addition to online material).

Turtles of the World

It’s difficult to believe that a resource of this caliber is available without charge on the inter net. An updated version of Ernst and Barbour’s classic book Turtles of the World, this publication provides detailed accounts and photos of the 288 species of turtle and tortoise described at the time of publication. A “must read” for serious turtle enthusiasts.

Turtle Homes

Operated by volunteers throughout the USA, the UK and Canada, and with connections to similar organizations in Asia and elsewhere, Turtle Homes members seek to place un-releasable turtles and tortoises with people or organizations that can properly tend to their husbandry and veterinary needs. They also post accurate care sheets, answer questions and direct site visitors to appropriate sources of information.

The California Turtle and Tortoise Club

The husbandry articles drawn from CTTC’s magazine, Tortuga Gazette, and posted on the group’s website, offer Chelonian enthusiasts some of the best information available on the inter net. The printed version of the Tortuga Gazette, published since 1965, is a well-written, invaluable resource to hobbyists and herpetologists alike.

The group is also actively involved in conservation efforts and supportive of turtle-friendly legislation, and offers site users a Black-knobbed Sawback hatchlingsnumber of ways to participate in such. In addition to dozens of informative articles, one may also find photographs and even recordings of tortoise vocalizations on this most useful web site.


Are You ready for an African Spurred Tortoise?

The African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata) is at once a highly desirable and problematical pet. One of the most engaging of all tortoises, with long-term pets exhibiting a degree of responsiveness more commonly associated with dogs, hatchlings are available for modest prices.


African Spurred Tortoise Speed Bump and FriendsSpurred tortoises are, however, the largest of all mainland tortoises, and may attain weights in excess of 200 pounds. Only one other mainland species, the yellow-footed tortoise (G. denticulata), gives the spurred any serious competition. A friend wrote me that he recently examined a 60 year old captive that weighed 190 pounds.

A harsh natural habitat – the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert – has equipped spurred tortoises with a remarkable ability to grow rapidly when food is plentiful. I weighed 2 individuals that topped 60 pounds by age 5!


Few hobbyists are equipped to properly care for a spurred tortoise. They require a great deal of room, with males being particularly active during the breeding season. Indeed, a ½ acre outdoor exhibit I over-saw proved too small for a pair of 80 pounders.

A determined spurred tortoise is also difficult to confine, and will dig under or plow through seemingly impenetrable barriers. Males may become territorial, and treat people and other pets as threats.

Stopping Traffic in Manhattan

Speed Bump the African Spurred Tortoise and FriendI took in the tortoise pictured here when its owner could no longer provide for it. He is currently at Social Tees, New York City’s premier animal rescue facility, awaiting transport to a new outdoor home in Florida.

It takes some doing to raise eyebrows in Manhattan’s East Village, but as you can see from the photo this stout fellow does so admirably. In fact, Social Tees reptile expert Robert Shapiro has dubbed him “Speed Bump” because of his traffic-stopping abilities! When not meeting new neighbors, “Speed Bump” has the run of a large outdoor yard – not easy to arrange at today’s rents!

Island Giants

The African spurred tortoise is exceeded in size only by 2 island-dwelling species, the Aldabra (G. gigantea) and Galapagos tortoises (G. elephantopus). Those on the Aldabra Islands (between Kenya and Madagascar) are the only survivors of a host of giant species that once inhabited the Seychelles and other islands in the Indian Ocean. Sadly, all were hunted to extinction by the early 1800’s.

Aldabra tortoises exceed the better-known “Galaps” in size. What may be the world’s largest terrestrial turtle was an Aldabra that resided at the London Zoo and is now preserved in the British Museum. This fellow weighed 560 pounds at the time of his death, by which point he had lost weight; he may have topped 600 pounds in his prime.

I have worked with both species, and found them to be unbelievably intelligent…Aldabra tortoises cover their food trays, backing up to expose only a bit of food at a time, so as not to draw the attention of hungry exhibit mates!

Please Plan Ahead

Despite my enthusiasm, I must advise you to think carefully before taking on even a small spurred tortoise. Please think long-term, and write in for advice.

Further Reading

I’ve recounted some interesting giant tortoise stories in the following articles:

Feisty Terrier Proves no Match for African Spurred Tortoise

How Reptiles Adjust to Novel Situations

Legendary turtle biologist Peter Prichard gives a wonderful account of living and extinct giant tortoises in the classic Encyclopedia of Turtles (TFH, 1979).

Please write in with your questions and comments. Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

Scroll To Top