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Turtles Have Shells,But They Still Need a Place to Hide! – Part 2

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 TurtleBog 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.

Large Tortoises

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

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

Musk TurtleYou 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!

Further Reading

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.


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.






Turtle Eye Ailments: Vitamin A Deficiencies and Eye Infections

Pet turtles, especially hatchlings and young specimens, are very commonly afflicted with Vitamin A deficiencies and eye infections, both of which usually render the eyes swollen and/or difficult to open. Eventually, the turtle will become listless, cease feeding and decline rapidly in condition.

Addressing Eye Problems

While turtle eye drops are available and can be effective in certain situations, a veterinary visit should be your first step when your turtle exhibits any type of eye ailment. It is important to determine the nature of the problem before attempting treatment, as an infection will need be addressed differently than a Vitamin A deficiency. Only a veterinarian can make this determination. You can apply eye drops as a safeguard, but do not attempt treatment without a professional diagnosis.

Good Husbandry as a Disease Preventative

Be sure to provide your turtle with ample UVB radiation (the Zoo Med 10.0 bulb positioned within 12 inches of the basking site, is ideal), a balanced diet, and an appropriately warm basking site, so that its immune system will be functioning at full capacity.

As is true for all reptiles, proper husbandry is the most effective medicine at our disposal – please write in if you need specific information concerning the turtles in your collection.

Further Reading

You can read more about addressing turtle eye problems on the website of the Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital.


Image referenced from Wikipedia commons and was first posted by Jmalik

Handling Snapping Turtles, Chelydra serpentina, and Other Large Turtles

Frank Indiviglio Grasping Large Alligator Snapping Turtle

Snapping turtles bite viciously in self defense and when striking at food – in fact, the species’ name, “serpentina”, refers to the long neck and lightening-fast strike.

I have worked with a number of quite calm captives that showed no propensity for biting, but all are capable, and feeding accidents are always a possibility. Never put your hands in the vicinity of a snapper’s head, even for a moment – believe me, you will not be able to avoid the strike! The injuries resulting from a bite can be severe or even disabling. This is a species to observe, not handle.

Nesting female snapping turtles are sometimes encountered on roads. When helping in this situation, use the technique described below, and always move the animal in its intended direction of travel.

Small turtles can be lifted by grasping the rear of the carapace (upper shell). Larger animals will use their powerful rear legs to dislodge your hands if you attempt to do this. Be aware also that the long neck can reach almost to the very rear of the carapace (upper shell).

To lift a large snapper, approach it from the rear and slide your hand along the carapace until you reach the edge, just above the head. This looks dangerous, and the turtle’s head will be pressed against your fingers, but it will not be able to bite you. Support the rear of the turtle with your other hand. Do not lift snappers by their tails, as is often done – this will cause severe injuries to the spine and internal organs. The accompanying photo shows me grasping a large alligator snapping turtle in a safe manner. Prior to lifting the turtle (quite a chore as this old fellow weighs 206 pounds!) I will slide my hand over a bit so as to center it directly above the head.

I have used this method to move scores of large, aggressive turtles of many species – alligator snappers, Malaysian river turtles (Batagur baska), Nile soft-shelled turtles and others. Soft-shelled turtles do not offer much in the way of space at the edge of the carapace – practice with other species is required before tackling one of these ill-tempered fellows.


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