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The Yellow-Spotted Sideneck Turtle (Terecay, Yellow-Spotted Amazon River Turtle), Podocnemis unifilis, in the Wild and Captivity – Care in Captivity


Please see Part I of this article for a discussion of this turtle’s natural history.


As mentioned in Part I of this article, I expect sideneck turtles of various species to become more common in the pet trade in the future.  The information provided here is largely applicable to all 6 species in the genus Podocnemis, but please write in for further details concerning turtles other than the yellow-spotted sideneck.

Please bear in mind that yellow-spotted sidenecks grow quite large, and are best kept by those with the space for a very large aquarium or outdoor pond.  If it becomes available at some point, the smaller red-headed Amazon sideneck, P. erythrocephala, would be more easily managed in the home.

Enclosure and Physical Environment

This turtle spends most of it’s time in the water, leaving only to bask or lay eggs.  An adult male or smaller female (some females top out at 12 inches, while others attain 18 inches in length) will require an aquarium of at least 100 gallons in capacity, but a larger enclosure would be preferable.  Turtles kept in aquariums should be afforded the opportunity to swim and forage in larger, temporary quarters, such as a child’s wading pool, when possible.  Large females will require a custom aquarium or outdoor pond.

A sturdy, dry basking platform must be provided.  Adult sidenecks are quite vigorous, so you may need to attach a piece of driftwood or cork bark to the tank’s side with aquarium silicone in order to hold the platform in place.  This will leave the area below the platform free for swimming – rock piles take up too much space, and can be rough on turtle plastrons.

Hatchlings and juveniles can be raised in smaller aquariums, with Zoo Med Turtle Docks or R-Zilla Basking Platforms used as land areas.


Filtration is best accomplished with a strong canister filter, as internal filters will be moved about or broken by these active turtles.  Be sure to choose the most powerful model suitable for the particular enclosure that you maintain.

In common with most aquatic turtles, sidenecks are messy feeders.  They should be offered meals outside of their aquarium, in a plastic storage bin that can easily be dumped and cleaned.  Doing so will go a long way in maintaining water quality and clarity, and will extend the time between filter medium changes.

Light and Heat

Yellow-spotted sidenecks are heliothermic (sun-basking) reptiles and require a source of UVB light in order to produce Vitamin D3 (which is required for calcium metabolism).  The Zoo Med Power Sun UV Mercury Vapor Bulb provides UVB and will help maintain a basking site temperature of 90-95 F.  For smaller aquariums housing young turtles, the Zoo Med Reptisun 10.0 High Output UVB bulb will likely be preferable, as the mercury vapor model is designed for larger enclosures.  Be sure to add an incandescent spotlight for warmth as well.

Yellow spotted sideneck turtles bask frequently in the wild, and require prolonged exposure to UVB in captivity.  If your turtles are nervous and drop into the water when disturbed, consider housing them in a quiet location until they adjust, lest their basking time be compromised.

Water temperature should be kept at 76-80 F.  You may need to protect your submersible heater from the turtles’ attentions with a piece of PVC pipe into which holes have been drilled.

The day/night cycle should be maintained at 12 hours daylight, 12 hours darkness.  If the room’s air temperature falls at night, use an R-Zilla Infra-red Ceramic Heat Emitter ….leaving the basking light on all night will disrupt the turtle’s normal activity patterns, and should be avoided.


Young sidenecks of all species lean towards an animal-based diet, becoming more herbivorous as they mature.  Offer as wide a variety of foods as is possible.

Zoo Med Aquatic Turtle Food is specifically formulated for sidenecks and turtles with similar nutritional requirements, and can be the base of the diet for both growing and adult animals.  It is low in protein, which is an important consideration for older sideneck turtles.  When fed to growing animals, this food should be alternated with Tetra Repto-Min Food Sticks and Suprema Food Sticks.

Hatchlings and young turtles should also be offered regular feedings of whole animals, including earthworms, fish, mealworms and their pupae, waxworms, butterworms, crickets, crayfish and small snails.  Canned grasshoppers, snails, shrimp and caterpillars are now available, and, along with freeze dried prawn, should be used to increase dietary variety.

Be sure to include plant material (see below) in the diet of growing sidenecks…animals refusing to switch to a vegetable-based diet as they mature is commonly encountered problem.  Acclimating turtles to all foods while young will help to avoid this situation.

Adults do best on a wide variety of vegetables, including kale, romaine, endive, dandelion, bok choy, cucumber, mustard greens, collard greens, yams and carrots.  Fruits should be offered sparingly, although apples are fine on a regular basis.  The composition of their diet should be varied with seasonally available greens.  Spinach, which binds calcium, should be avoided.

Provide your turtles with the tough stems of kale and bok choy, as these will help to keep the cutting edges of the jaws trimmed.

Captive Longevity

Captive longevity exceeds 20 years.  Please see Part I of this article for notes on a long-lived group of giant sideneck turtles (P. expansa).


Sidenecks are ideally suited for outdoor ponds.  Please see A Survey of Amphibians, Reptiles and Insects Suitable for Maintenance in Outdoor Ponds – Part II, the Red-Eared Slider, Chrysemys scripta elegans for general considerations.


You can read about current Turtle Conservation Funds projects focusing on sideneck and other turtles at:


Image referenced from Wikipedia.

The Yellow-Spotted Sideneck Turtle , Podocnemis unifilis, in the Wild and Captivity: Natural History – Part 2

Click: The Yellow-Spotted Sideneck Turtle , Podocnemis unifilis, in the Wild and Captivity: Natural History – Part 1, to read the first part of this article.


Adults are mainly herbivorous and subsist largely upon aquatic vegetation and fallen fruits, but will also consume insects, fish, carrion, snails and crayfish (the preferred diet of juveniles).

The yellow-spotted sideneck sometimes utilizes a feeding method known as neustophagia to filter particulate food matter from the water’s surface.  The turtle opens its jaws at the surface and rapidly pumps the throat, which has the effect of drawing in only the thin surface film.  A rapid snap of the jaw expels the ingested water and retains the organic matter.  Neustophagia enables a relatively large turtle to obtain significant nutrition from a food source that would be otherwise too small to exploit.

This and related turtles sometimes gather in large numbers below trees overhanging water when fruits ripen and fall (please see below).


The mating season varies throughout the range.  As in many aquatic turtles, males court females by stroking their heads with the claws of the forelegs.

Females often nest communally, digging nest holes in sand or, on occasion, in mats of floating vegetation.  Several clutches may be produced each season, with 6-52 (average 19) eggs being laid at once.  The hatchlings average 1.6 inches in length, and emerge after 60-75 days.

Encounters in the Field

While engaged in field work with green anacondas, I was fortunate to find myself in the Venezuelan llanos… prime habitat of the savanna sideneck turtle, Podocnemis vogli, a close relative of the yellow-spotted sideneckOn one memorable occasion, I came upon thousands of these shy yet inquisitive turtles at a river oxbow, below a stand of fruit trees.

Droves appeared at the surface, briefly looked at the boat and dove, to be replaced by an equal number of turtles a few seconds later.  Upon entering the water, I was astonished to find that the entire pool was packed, top to bottom, with turtles…to move, I literally had to push my way through a nearly solid mass of shells.  Being in the center of so many frantically swimming turtles was quite unlike anything I had experienced, either before or since.

Notes on Related Turtles

Podocnemis erythrocephala

The red-headed sideneck turtle, P. erythrocephala, is a much sought after species that rarely if ever enters the pet trade anymore.  Unlike many turtles, males retain the brilliant red head markings that characterize hatchlings.  Limited to the Rio Negro and Rio Casiquiare drainages in Venezuela and Brazil, it is a secretive species that mainly keeps to blackwater areas.

This turtle’s wild status has not been well-studied, but it is assumed threatened by past over-collection and habitat loss.  Those I have worked with proved to be fairly shy, even after nearly 3 decades in captivity. They did not rush towards me at feeding time, as would almost any other turtle after such a time period, and reproduced only sporadically.  We certainly need to learn more about the keys to the captive breeding of this species.

Podocnemis expansa

The giant South American river turtle (P. expansa) is the heavyweight of the family and, at 3 feet in length, one of the world’s largest freshwater turtles.  Inhabiting tributaries of the upper Amazon and rivers in the Caribbean drainages of Guyana and Venezuela, it favors deep water.  Females have the unfortunate habit of gathering in huge numbers along favored nesting sites at predictable times each year.  This renders both they and their eggs quite easy to collect, and the species is now in dire trouble throughout much of its range.

During my years at the Bronx Zoo, I cared for a breeding group of these impressive turtles, some of which approached 40 years as captives, and were likely 60-70 years old.  Several times I was called to Kennedy Airport to identify turtle eggs found in luggage (and, in one case, filling 2 shopping bags!).  Twice I was tempted to identify seized eggs as belonging to a sea turtle, but upon close examination and some research into the collection site found them rather to be eggs of this massive species.

A great deal of information concerning the harvesting and conservation of this and other South American turtles and tortoises is posted at:


Image referenced from Wikipedia.

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