When we refer to the word turtle, we are speaking about any aquatic or semi-aquatic species. We have separated out the tortoise species as well as the box turtle species from this group. What aquatic means is, these turtles live exclusively in water and never go onto land; while semi-aquatic means these species spend their days in and out of the water. However, technically even sea turtles, the most aquatic species comes out of the water to lay its eggs.
There are two types of aquatic water turtles, those that have necks that can retract and those that can’t – the later instead turn their necks to the side. The first are classified as Cryptodira and the other respectively are classified as Pleurodira (See Turtle Classification). The necks of water turtles are usually longer than other breeds. This trait gives them the ability to sit on the bottom and reach up to take a breath of air (See Turtle Anatomy).
Both of these types of water turtles are adept for life in the water and are built so they can spend longer periods of time in it. For starters, the metabolism of an aquatic turtle is slow, so each breath of air can go a long way. Some species are able to semi-breathe underwater by taking in oxygenated water through their mouth and even their cloaca. Inside the mouths and cloaca or these breeds are numerous blood vessels close the surface that allow for the exchange of oxygen into the blood stream and thus prolonging their need to surface for air. During hibernation certain aquatic turtles can spend months at a time laying in the mud at the bottoms on their ponds or streams.
Aquatic Turtles as Pets
If you decide to get aquatic water turtles as pets, you will first need to make sure you can provide the breed you want to get with the proper turtle habitat. The best living space you could provide them is a large pond with plenty of logs to bask on and aquatic plants for them to eat and hide amongst; that’s assuming you only purchase aquatic turtles that will thrive in your geographic location. However, you might not have the space for an outdoor garden pond, so at minimum, depending on the breed, you are going to need a tank or enclosure that has a pond deep enough for your turtle to fully submerge itself as well an area where it can get completely out of the water. Additionally, the habitat will need to have a temperature variation that allows for your turtle to bask under a full spectrum light and also a space to cool off (Read more on Turtle Tanks).
Selecting a Breed
If you can provide an aquatic water turtle with this type of living space, next you should think about where to get your new pet and what breed to get. We recommended that get your aquatic turtle from a local breeder or pet store that only sells captive-bred turtles. If it’s your first aquatic turtle, stick to the smaller and more common breeds while avoiding the exotic types. Smaller breeds will obviously require a smaller enclosure while breeds that grow up to a foot will need a large habitat to stay healthy. Exotic or imported turtles usually require more special care than what you can get locally and the distance they need to travel to get to you can cause them unneeded stress. Furthermore, it’s better if you can personally pick out your turtle and make sure it’s a healthy turtle.
The Four Inch Rule
In addition to this list of selecting a healthy pet, you should know that there is a law that forbids the sale of any turtle that has a carapace under four inches. See the Food and Drug Administrations website for more information. The 1974 law came about because certain individuals got salmonella from handling turtles. The reasoning behind the “four inches” was to keep young children from putting them into their mouths. It’s thought that a young child might think of the turtle as a toy and not a pet. The Center for Disease Control suggest people with children under the age of 5 should not get turtles as pets.
Get a Healthy Pet
Select a captive-bred turtle over a captured one
Choose one that is active and alert
Some resistant should occur if you pull slightly on a leg
Avoid turtles that have discolored spots or cuts or on their shells
Don’t pick one that has crust or discharge coming from their nose
Don’t pick one that has swollen, crusty or sunken eyes
The follow is a list of the common pond turtles you are likely to find in the United States. Some of theses species are readily available in the pet trade market while others are not consider ideal species for the average pond owner. A few of these are hardy breeds and good for beginners but a few of them will also grow rather large; up to one to two feet (30.5cm-60cm).
Red Eared Slider
The most widely sold pond turtle in the United States is the the Red Eared Slider turtle. You might be able to find 4 inch juvenile sliders at your local pet store but certainly through most breeders. When fully grown however, these guys can grow to a foot in length (30.5cm). If kept in an aquarium, you will need a minimum of a 75 gallon tank (285 l) for two. Their most notable characteristic is the red patch on the sides where their ears would be if they had any (see turtle anatomy for more). The skin and shell of this breed is green with yellow stripes or patches. In their natural habitat they enjoy water temperatures in the upper 70s (24-26c) and an outdoor temperature in the 80s (29-31c).
The four subspecies of painted turtle are not as hardy of a species as the Red Eared Slider and is also smaller than it. They can grow up to 10 inches (25cm) long. Their shells are black with red edges around the marginal scutes. The skin is a dark color with yellow to red lines. The plastron is often dark with yellow lines and red wavy pattern along the outer sides.
There are around seven different species of Cooter pond turtles and many can reach up to 17 inches (44cm) in length. They are often called the River or Florida Cooter. This breed looks similar to the Red-Eared but are not as decorated and might lose their colors as they age. Additionally, it has a higher domed shell and is more of an herbivore than the Sliders. A characteristic of a Cooter that stands out is notched marginal scutes.
Map turtles are an attractive looking species but are known to be one of the harder aquatic turtles to care for. They prefer moving water (like a river) more so than what a pond can usually offer. At full maturity, females can be 12 inches (30cm) long while males only grow to 5 inches (13cm). They are named Map turtles for the fine lines on their skin and shell that resemble the elevation lines on a topographical map. If the intricate lines are not enough to help name this species, the top keel of the carapace, running front to back, has a saw tooth pattern of jagged scutes. For this reason, Map turtles are also referred to as the Sawback.
The name Musk turtle is given to this breed because of the odor they secrete from their glands when handled (also called the Stinkpot). They might be stinky and are not as pretty as their slider cousins but they also don’t grow as large, making them ideal for pets owners who don’t have large aquariums or ponds. A 30 gallon (114 l) tank good sufficiently house two of these guys. Their high domed shell is often a brownish gray and their skin has a one or two yellow lines along the face.
Mud turtles are similar to Musk breeds in a sense that they are smaller (up to 5 inches or 13cm), have similar coloring and roughly the same care requirements. A pair can live in a 30 gallon tank (114 l). You can tell these two types apart by noticing that the Mud turtle lacks a central keel and its shell is more oval shaped.
The Common and the Alligator Snappers are a big breed of aquatic water turtles. The Common species can grow up to 20 (50cm) while the Alligators can reach up to 26-32 inches (40-80cm) and weigh 175-200 lbs (80-90 kg). For this reason and in addition to their powerful bite, snapping turtles are not ideal for most pond owners. The bite of one of these breeds can take a finger or toe off if not just be very painful. The head of a snapper is too large to retract inside its shell so biting is how they defend its self. The tails of this breed is also large. The skin is thick and scaly. The low profile shells of both Snapper breeds is dark in color but the Alligator looks different with three jagged keels that resemble teeth of an alligator.
There are several species of softshell, three in the United States: Florida, Spiny and Smooth softshell. Others are found in Asia and Africa. A softshell turtle is exactly that; it lacks the hard protective scutes that most turtles have. The carapace is very streamline with a very subtle dome pancake shape. The nose of the softshell is snorkel like which allows it to stay submerged while it takes a breath. They are also known to bury themselves in the muddy bottom of their water habitat and lie in wait for prey to come in reach. Additionally these breeds all grow large; one species up to 4 feet in length (1 meter). Therefore, softshell turtles do not make good pets for the average pond owner.
There are breeds of aquatic turtles that are found all throughout the globe and some of them are popular in the pet trade. Most of these are found in Asia and Africa. Furthermore, most of these species will require turtle care that most beginners won’t be able to manage. However, if you do have some experience in caring for aquatic turtles, you should be able to handle the additional or specific needs they require. If you do get an exotic species, only get captive bred ones from a local breeder. Ones that are captured from within their natural habitats will be very stressful on them and as a result, will lead to lower survival rates.
The Reeves turtle from southeast Asia is probably the most common species seen in the pet trade since they are small in size and rather hardy. It only grows to about 5 inches (13cm). It’s shell and skin color that ranges from grays browns and dark greens. The head often has thin yellow lines. The Shell has three keels that run front to back and the keels are what help distinguish them from the similar looking Mud and Musk turtles.
Similar in shape and size as the Reeves but not in color. The Asian Yellow and Leaf are typically more solid yellow in color. These yellow pond turtles are found in parts of China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and Laos. Asian Yellow pond turtles are becoming threatened and should not be purchased as pets.
The Asian Leaf turtle is also similar in size as the Reeves but it’s brownish carapace slightly resembles that of a leaf. The outer scutes are jagged like edges of a leaf.
African Mud turtles are a hardy breed and deal better with transport than other exotic aquatic turtles do. They look similar to the Painted species. Their shells are often brown in color and their skin, a yellow or grayish color. They enjoy basking as well as burying themselves into the dirt in land portions of the habitat.
Snake turtles have long necks as their name describes them. In fact, their necks can be as long as their carapace. Their heads are too big to retract so they turn them to the side. Some or these species are also referred to as sideneck or longneck turtles. These long necks make them well adept for hunting life prey, so it’s no wonder why they are mainly carnivores.
The skin on the head of Big Headed turtle is tougher than most aquatic species and might more so resemble the skin of a snapper. With a head that is too big, it has protective plate like skin on its head and neck. This breed is more well adept for climbing than they are for swimming and can even be spotted in trees in their natural habitat. For this reason, if made as pets, provide them with a shallow water area and plenty of land area.
By far one of the most alien like breeds of aquatic turtle, the Mata Mata (“kill kill”) has a rough and rocky like carapace and head. This species like shallow slow moving water where it can sit on the bottom and blend in. It sits in wait for unsuspecting fish to come by and when they do, the Mata Mata stretches out its head and sucks in the fish like a vacuum.
Tim Winter has a strong affection for pets and wildlife. His years of experience caring for various types of pets has led him to share his knowledge with others on the best practices in pet care. Tim holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications.