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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.

Small Pet Turtles: Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle Care

Geoemyda spengleri

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Stavenn

Small size, a uniquely-beautiful shell and the habit of raising the long neck to “stare” at its owner with large, protruding eyes endears this charming turtle to all. I first came across the Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle (Geoemyda spengleri) while working on plans to conserve Asian turtles devastated by collection for the food and medicinal trades (please see article linked below). Although reputed to be a delicate captive, zoo and private turtle keepers have learned much about its needs in recent years, and captive-born animals are becoming more available. Under the care of an experienced turtle keeper, this personable beauty can make a wonderful pet that exhibits all the spunk of its larger relatives.


Turtle Description

This little turtle’s “bug-eyed” stare is often the first characteristic to grab one’s attention. The elongated carapace is strongly notched at the rear, and each marginal scute (scale) is pointed and flared upwards. The carapace ranges from dark to rich orange-brown in coloration, and the plastron is black with a yellow border. Adults top out at a mere 4-5 inches in length.


Leaf Turtle Natural History

G. spengleri habitat type

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Jtri

The Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle ranges from southern China through Laos and Vietnam, where it is mainly restricted to moist hillside forests; the uniquely-shaped carapace offers excellent camouflage among the leaf litter. Although largely terrestrial, shallow forest pools and streams are used for soaking and foraging. Its life in the wild has not been well-studied.


Pet Qualities

Although shy at first, these alert turtles adjust to captivity quickly, and soon learn to feed from the hand. Black-Breasted Leaf Turtles have a reputation as delicate captives, and losses were high when they first showed up in the US pet trade in the 1980’s. Parasitic infections, the stress of shipping and a poor understanding of their needs were largely responsible for early difficulties with wild-caught individuals.


The Terrarium

Black-Breasted Leaf Turtles are native to thickly-vegetated habitats, and will not thrive in bare enclosures. Cover in the form of live or plastic plants, caves, and a substrate into which they can burrow is essential to their well-being. A pool of shallow water should be available.


Although small in size, these turtles are quite active once habituated to their new homes, and should be provided with as much room as possible. A single adult may be kept in a 30 gallon long-style aquarium, but additional room is preferable.


Terrarium Substrate

A mix of topsoil, peat and sphagnum moss, deep enough for your pet to burrow into, may be used as a substrate.



Black-Breasted Leaf Turtles must be provided with a source of UVB radiation. Natural sunlight is best, but it must be direct, as glass and plastic filter-out UVB rays.


When using UVB bulbs, be sure that your turtle can bask within the distance recommended by the manufacturer. I favor Zoo Med bulbs, which are available in a wide variety of strengths and styles.


Heat and Humidity

Although native to tropical regions, Black-Breasted Leaf Turtles prefer cooler temperatures than one might expect. A temperature gradient of 68- 74 F should be established, along with a basking site set at 80 F.


Humidity should be kept at 50-60%, and areas of both moist and dry substrate should be available.


tp35833Turtle Feeding

The wild diet consists primarily of insects, worms, snails, carrion, and small amounts of fruit. Pets should be offered a diet comprised of whole animals such as earthworms, crickets and other insects, prawn, canned snails, minnows, an occasional pre-killed pink mouse and a variety of fruits (many refuse fruit, and seem to do fine without). 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.


Commercial turtle chows are not accepted unless moistened, and then not always. The calcium requirements of Black-Breasted Leaf Turtles, especially growing youngsters and gravid females, are quite high. All foods (other than whole fish) should be powdered with a reptile calcium supplement. A cuttlebone may also be left in the cage. Vitamin/mineral supplements may be used 2-3 times weekly.



A single, unusually-large egg (rarely 2) is produced 1-3 times yearly. Females sometimes have difficulty passing their eggs, especially if the diet lacks sufficient calcium.


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. 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 un-mated, and that captives may produce several clutches each year.


Eggs incubated at 82 F typically hatch in 62-75 days.


Males may stress or bite females during mating attempts. Males cannot be kept together, as they will usually fight. Females also establish a dominance hierarchy, and must be watched closely if kept in groups.




Further Reading

The Asian Turtle Extinction Crisis

Nest Sites for Female Turtles


Turtle Food: Pellets, Shrimp and other Prepared Diets

Painted turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by US Bureau of Land Management

Today’s commercial turtle foods are, thankfully, light years removed from the yesteryear’s dried “ant eggs” (actually ant pupae). While natural foods remain important, some remarkable advances now provide turtle keepers with an important safety net, and simplify the process of providing our pets with a balanced diet. Today I’ll review some well-researched prepared diets that are valued by zookeepers and experienced private turtle owners alike.


Note: The excellent products described below should be used as part of a well-rounded diet….in my experience, up to 50% for some species, more or less for others. We do not, as far as I know, have long-term research concerning diets comprised entirely of prepared foods. Whole freshwater fishes remain the best source of calcium for Sliders, Painted Turtles, Snakenecks and most other semi-aquatic turtles. Depending upon the species, fresh greens, produce, earthworms and other foods may be essential as well. Please see the articles under “Further Reading” and post questions below for information on complete diets for specific turtles. Today I’ll focus on Zoo Med products, as they have an extensive product line that is backed by over 2 decades of research. I’ll cover prepared foods from Tetra, Hikari and others in the future.


mediaAquatic Turtle Food

Zoo Med’s Aquatic Turtle Food can be an important building block in the diet of a wide variety of turtles. It was formulated for Sliders, Sidenecks, and Asian Box, Spotted and Painted Turtles, but is also useful for African Mud Turtles, Spotted Pond Turtles and others. I especially like the fact that it is available in both hatchling and adult formulas, with the levels of protein and other nutrients adjusted for each.



This high protein (35%) floating food contains kale along with other animal and plant products, vitamins and minerals. I came to value kale as a turtle food after discussions with veterinarian co-workers at the Bronx Zoo, but find that it is not widely used by private keepers. Mixing it with the tastier foods included in ReptiSticks is also a great way to induce your “meat oriented” pets to eat their vegetables!


Spotted Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Dave Pape

Freshwater Shrimp

Shrimp play an important role in turtle diets, but until recently only marine species have been available commercially.  However, the shrimp in Zoo Med’s Sun Dried Red Shrimp is freshwater species (the Oriental River Shrimp, Macrobrachium nipponense) and as such is a great food item for most semi-aquatic turtles. Anecdotal evidence from several of my zoo colleagues indicates that shrimp (and krill) are an excellent calcium source for a variety of turtles…and I cannot recall many that will refuse them!


Gourmet Turtle Food

Dried cranberries and mealworms are among the unique ingredients in Zoo Med’s Gourmet Aquatic Turtle Food, which can be used to add variety to the diets of Sliders, Cooters and similar turtles. As always, be sure to feed this and other high protein foods (37% in this product) in accordance with the needs of the species that you keep…please post below for detailed information.


Some Other Ideas

t259648Zoo Med’s Floating Turtle Feeder accepts most pelleted foods, is fun to use, and will keep your turtle occupied and active.   Please see this article for more info.


I’ve long offered commercial turtle foods to various newts, African clawed frogs, shrimp, crayfish and hermit and fiddler crabs. When moistened, many are also readily accepted by millipedes, roaches, crickets and other invertebrates.




Further Reading

Feeding American Box Turtles

Slider Map and Painted Turtle Care and Feeding

Turtles as Pets: New Species to Try in 2014

Turtle enthusiasts are, in my experience, among the most intense of all reptile keepers. Passionate (and financially well-off!) friends of mine have maintained astonishing collections – upwards of 2,000 specimens in several cases – and their desire to learn remains undiminished. In recent years, refined breeding techniques have introduced and re-introduced many fascinating species to the pet trade. Today I’d like to cover several that might interest folks with varying degrees of experience. I’ll review others in the future…until then, please post notes about your own favorites (“new” or “old”) below, as those mentioned here are just a small sample.


Peacock Slider, Trachemys scripta venusta

Peacock Slider

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Magnus Manske

Also known as the Meso-American Slider, this aptly-named beauty truly is the “peacock” of its family, and one of the most spectacularly-colored of all American turtles. Hatchlings must be seen to be believed (unfortunately, the only photo I was able to use does not do the species justice; please click here for other photos), and they fade but little with age. The numerous dark-centered, orange-ringed spots that decorate the olive to bright green carapace are unique in the turtle world, and they are off set nicely by the yellow-striped head and legs.


The Peacock Slider’s range extends from southern Mexico (Veracruz) through Guatemala and Belize to El Salvador and Honduras. Within much of this area, it can be quite common…image having this as your local “pond turtle”! Like its cousin the Red Eared Slider, the Peacock spends much time basking on logs, plunging (or “sliding”) into water when disturbed.


Unfortunately for those with limited space, this is the largest of the 15 Common Slider subspecies, with females sometimes topping 19 inches in length. Otherwise, it is quite hardy and may be kept and fed as are Red Eared and other sliders (please see the article linked below for detailed information). A male (the smaller sex) might get by in a 55-75 gallon aquarium, but females need tanks of 100 gallon capacity, or commercial turtle tubs and ponds.


Keeled Box Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Torsten Blanck

Keeled Box Turtle, Cuora (Pyxidea) mouhotii

This subtly-beautiful turtle has been largely ignored by hobbyists and zoos alike, but it is now gaining in popularity.


Also known as the Jagged-Shelled or Indian Thorn Turtle, it bears a unique carapace which is flattened on top and decorated with 3 distinctive keels. The shell is clad in varying shades of brown, tan and rust, and is serrated at the rear edge. A hinge in the plastron of the adults allows the head and front limbs to be sealed tightly into the shell. They top out at 7 inches in length.


The Keeled Box Turtle ranges from southern China and eastern India through Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. It is not well-studied in the wild, but seems to be restricted to forests and other habitats with thick plant cover.

Interestingly, they are reported to be largely nocturnal. However, a 30+ year-old pair under my care were content to forage by day. Night viewing bulbs will help you observe those that may be slow to give up their nocturnal ways.


Their care follows that of most American Box Turtles (Terrepene spp.), but in demeanor they are much shyer. Mine thrived on a diet comprised of vegetables, fruits, crickets, earthworms, pink mice and commercial turtle chows such as Zoo Med Box Turtle Food.


Pairs must be watched closely, as males often bite females during courtship. A typical clutch contains 1-5 eggs, which hatch after an incubation period of 95-110 days at 82 F. Please see the article linked below for further information.


Yellow Spotted Sideneck

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Obsidian Soul

The Yellow-Spotted Sideneck Turtle, Podocnemis unifilis,

This attractive South American turtle commonly appeared in the US trade in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Scarce in the decades since, it is now making a comeback. It sports a yellow-rimmed, olive-gray carapace, with large, bright yellow or orange-yellow spots decorating the head.


The Yellow Spotted Sideneck inhabits northern and central South America, from Guyana, French Guiana and Venezuela to Columbia, Ecuador, northeastern Peru, northern Bolivia and Brazil; it may also be present on Trinidad and Tobago.


An active, semi-aquatic turtle that reaches 12-18 inches in length, the Yellow-Spotted Sideneck is best kept by those with room for a 100+ gallon aquarium or a commercial turtle tub or pond. Dry basking areas and ample UVB exposure are essential. Youngsters are largely carnivorous, adding plants to the menu as they mature. Zoo Med Aquatic Turtle Food,specifically formulated for Sidenecks and similar turtles, may be used as a cornerstone of the diet. Please see the article linked below for additional information on the natural history and care of this spectacular turtle




Further Reading


Yellow Spotted Sideneck Turtle Care


Keeled Box Turtle Care


Slider, Map and Painted Turtle Care


Tortoise Rescue: Finding a Home for a Turtle or Tortoise

1535481_643171095725305_447254353_nTurtles and Tortoises are the most popular of all reptilian pets, but first-time owners are often misled by the small size and irresistible cuteness common to hatchlings.  Even after a lifetime of working with hundreds of species, I’m shocked by the growth rates exhibited by Red Eared Sliders, African Spurred Tortoises and other hardy turtles.  Many keepers are not able to provide the space that these commonly-available species need.  It’s also easy to underestimate the time and expense involved in meeting specific needs for diets, mineral supplementation, heat, ultraviolet radiation, vet care and so on.  In this article, I’ll highlight some organizations that may be able to help those who cannot provide a 75 gallon tank for their adult Slider or a ½ acre yard for the Spurred Tortoise that ballooned to 80 pounds in 5 years…or who need to find homes for “less extreme” turtles.  And those readers who wish to adopt turtles in need – often a better option than purchasing – will learn how to do so.


Note: Some of the most popular turtles and tortoises are actually among the worst pet-choices for most people…as illustrated by the millions of released Red Eared Sliders that now populate over 30 foreign countries (see photo of  Sliders basking in a pond at the Shitennō-ji Buddhist temple in Osaka, Japan; photo courtesy of Matthew Lu) .  Please see Ideal Pet Choices: Small Turtles and The Best “First Tortoise” before deciding on a new pet.


New York Turtle and Tortoise Society

I’m in touch with reptile interest groups from all over the world, but the NY Turtle and Tortoise Society (NYTTS) remains my favorite.  My friends there are both knowledgeable and dedicated, and over the society’s long history have helped thousands of turtles and turtle-owners and supported many young turtle biologists and conservation projects.  Their monthly talks and annual day-long seminars draw some of the world’s best known herpetologists as speakers.  I was proud to have been asked to speak recently, although I suspect this was due more to the charms of my 6-year-old associate than any expertise on my part! (check the photos on the NYTTS website!).


shitenno-jiIn common with similar groups, NYTTS’s resources have been overwhelmed by armies of homeless Red Eared Sliders.  Thousands have been placed, but the supply of local homes is now depleted.  However, society members can assist with husbandry information and may be able to point you towards other options.  They can sometimes accommodate other turtle species, and are always happy to hear from folks who wish to provide homes for turtles (especially Sliders, I imagine!).  Please see the NYTTS Website and Facebook page for further information on adoptions.

(Photo above courtesy of Matthew Lu)

Social Tees Animal Rescue

Social Tees’ owner Robert Shapiro and I haunted the same NYC swamps, vacant lots, and pet stores as children, and were influenced by the same reptile-pioneers (most notably dear friend Aldo Passera, who owned a legendary Manhattan pet store, Fang and Claw).  I don’t know anyone who devotes more of him or herself to animal welfare.  Robert has also re-homed thousands of other reptiles, cats and dogs, along with some birds, spiders, fish…he does whatever it takes, and has an extensive network of placement contacts.  If you wish to place or adopt an animal, or to help Social Tees in its important work, please check the website or call 212-614-9653.


WITH LARGE MATA MATACalifornia Turtle and Tortoise Society

CTTS is well-known for assisting the California Department of Fish and Game with the placement and conservation of the endangered Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii).  Their success in re-homing a wide variety of other native and exotic species is also impressive, as you can see from their adoption statistics.  CTTS takes great pains to assure that the turtles under their care are placed in appropriate homes, and generally only considers adopting to folks living within a region that is served by a CTTS chapter.  They also provide excellent care info and other guidance.


Forgotten Friends Reptile Sanctuary

I first met the kind folks at FFRS while participating in events held at ThatFishPlace-ThatPetPlace in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (if you have a chance to visit the store, do so – I’ve been to pet stores on several continents, but was overwhelmed by the selection and service here…no way to do it justice in this article!).


FFRS is run with a distinct personal touch – prospective owners are emailed when turtles or other reptiles become available – and each situation is given individual attention.  The group also has an extensive network of contacts, and so may be able to assist even if you are not in the immediate area…and for a $20 donation you receive 4 excellent pocket field guides covering all of PA’s reptiles and amphibians!


Spurred Tortoise

Uploaded to Wijkipedia Commons by Baseballchck02 (Melissa Mitchell)

Austin’s Turtle Page

I often post articles and participate in discussions on Austin’s Turtle Page.  I urge you to check out this wonderful turtle care and natural history resource.  The adoption forum lists a wide variety of turtles located throughout the USA.


Post Below for Other Contacts

I maintain contacts with numerous herp societies in the USA and other countries.  Please post below if you need assistance in finding a home for your turtle or tortoise, or wish to help out by adopting one.



Further Reading

Tortoise Care: an Overview

Keeping Sliders, Painted Turtles & Map Turtles

The Best Small Turtle Pets for Reptile Enthusiasts with Limited Space

The world’s most popular pet turtle, the Red Eared Slider, is a poor choice for those lacking space for a huge aquarium and filter.  A number of smaller, less active turtles are easier to accommodate in homes and classrooms.  Today I’ll cover some of my favorite aquatic, semi-aquatic and terrestrial species, all of which are being bred in captivity.  Unless otherwise stated, all can be kept in a 20-30 gallon aquarium or similarly-sized plastic bin.  This list is by no means exhaustive, so please be sure to post your own choices and share your experiences below.  Please see the linked articles and post below for in depth information on care and breeding.

Common Musk Turtle, hatchling

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Karlwj1985

Common Musk Turtle, Sternotherus odoratus

As I type this article, I’m being watched by a Musk Turtle that I acquired in 1969, so I can vouch for their hardiness!

Found across a wide chunk of eastern North America, females rarely exceed 4 inches in length, while males average 3 inches.

As turtles go, these engaging little guys are quite simple to care for.  Reptomin can comprise 50-60% of the diet, with the balance being supplied by other aquatic turtle foods, earthworms, freeze dried shrimp, and minnows. Read More »

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