Turtle care sheets by Donna Moot who runs Turtle Rescue and rehoming Christchurch.
Providing -Care for rehomed, neglected and abandoned turtles-Rehabilitation for your sick or
-Turtle 'vacations' while you are an holiday-Information on turtle care in general.
There are currently over 50 turtles in care, with 25 needing to be rehomed. Donna receives no
financial help to pay
for the upkeep or vet bills of the rescue turtles.
For further information, contact Donna at firstname.lastname@example.org or 021 2020 185
RED EARED TERRAPIN.
Chrysemys scripta elegans
HABITAT: From North America’s Northern states to Mexico. Usually in slow moving streams, ponds and
DESCRIPTION: Females up to 30cm long, males smaller. Male with longer tail and long front toe
nails. Females can
lay up to 15 eggs per clutch approx. every 3 weeks during the breeding season, but N.Z. is usually
too cold for the eggs to naturally hatch.
In America they sunbathe on the sides of ponds, as soon as danger nears they slide into the water.
Hence their American name of sliders.
A turtle’s shell is made up of bone covered with a thin layer of skin, which gives the shell its
colour. The outer layer of skin is called a scute, is shed once or twice a year and not as tough as
it looks. Scutes are easily scratched by minor trauma or prolonged immersion in warm water. Turtles
slide off their basking area at high speed and the bigger the turtle, the harder it hits the water.
In captivity they often land in
shallow water, hitting a rock or tank bottom which can cause minute cracks in their scute. Water
gets into these
cracks, leading to infection which is not visible under the scute and gradually spreads throughout
the turtle. Its not unusual for it to take several years for the turtle to slowly die from the
infection. This Ulcerative Shell Disease is preventable with the correct environment. (Information
adapted from Mark Feldman's care sheet on the NZ Herp web site.)
In the wild, the RES lives in deep water where, even in summer, it's always cool a foot or two
below the surface. Turtles are cold blooded so regulate their temperature from their environment,
moving between sunning area and the layers of warm and cool water. Warm water causes their scutes
to swell and soften, like fingernails in a hot bath. When they bask in the sun, their scutes dry
and firm back up. If their Water is too warm, they can't bask for long, because they’re already
hot. So the scutes can't dry out, but continue to swell and soften leading to White Shell Disease.
Warm water can also create a build-up of unshed scutes leading to deformity and irritation. A
temperature of 26c is needed for a hatchling. After 1yr, slowly reduce temp (during summer only) to
22C. At approx 2 years of age, a healthy turtle won't need a heater in the summer but a temp
around 22-24C is recommended over winter. Change temp slowly. If turtle stops eating or is too
lethargic, it’s too cold, so increase the temperature. Prolonged temperature above 28C will lead to
rapid, excessive growth and associated organ damage of the turtle.
LIGHTING and BASKING
Turtles spend half their lives basking in the sun to absorb warmth and UV. The UVB helps the turtle
produce Vitamin D which it needs to absorb calcium, develop strong shells and function normally.
They need a reptile light AND a heat source such as a reptile heat-lamp in a ceramic clamp lamp 12
hrs daily. The heat source encourages them out of the
water to dry their scutes. Use a timer for convenience. Position lights 26 cm to 30 cm away from
the turtle and always over the basking area. Often turtles are kept in a warm tank with UV lights
sitting on top of a glass lid. The glass filters out nearly all the UV rendering it a waste of
time. Lights need to get the necessary UVB and UVA coming from it. If you have a mesh lid over your
tank the grid must be larger than 1½ cm to allow the UV through. Sunlight streaming through a
window onto your tank is NOT enough, as the UV rays your turtle needs are blocked by the glass.
Large, external filters can seem expensive, but are the best system to keep your tank clean. Always
remove all media
from the filter such as carbon. Only use some form of bio-balls and coarse sponge as filter media.
(Filter wool is fine but will clog quickly). Ammonia removers, carbon etc quickly loose their
ability to work effectively and begin to leach toxins back into the turtle tank which can lead to
illness over time. Never underestimate how dirty turtles can be. You need to change up to half
your tank water weekly and all your water monthly. Internal filters need weekly cleaning with your
water change. External; filters should not need cleaning for up to 3 mths or more depending on size
of tank, amount of turtles etc. Place a 'pre-filter' sponge over the intake hose to decrease the
waste matter going into your filter. e.g. cable-tie a coarse sponge around the inlet filter and
remove it for cleaning weekly. This stops loads of bio waste getting inside your filter. (NB/some
turtles will eat the sponge so you can't use it for those turtles.) Remember that for every poo,
turtles do 5 times the amount in wee, so change at least 1/3 to 1/2 of your water every week so
they aren’t drinking and swimming in a sewer. Do a full water change every 3 to 4 weeks as well.
Don’t be fooled, turtles grow rapidly and a baby needs a 3 ft tank and maximum swimming space to
stay strong and healthy. Adult males need a 4ft (120cm long) tank minimum and females a 6 ft (2
metre) tank. Don’t have a ‘lip or edge’ on basking area as it causes injury. Ramp needs to be deep
into the water so turtle can easily climb out to bask and water level MUST be right up to the
basking platform to prevent injury as the turtle dives off. Recommendations indicate that turtles
need 40 litres of water per 1cm of shell size. The larger the tank, the happier the turtle. Also
aquarium stones in tanks are one of the biggest killers of captive turtles. They explore their
world by taste and can easily swallow small aquarium stones leading to impaction and death. Any
stones in your tank should be larger than the turtles head so they can’t swallow them. Some smooth
river rocks a few cm in size can provide interest for your turtle without danger of them swallowing
them. A decent sized piece of driftwood creates security for your turtle, provides interest in your
tank and turtle can scratch with it, even bite at it without causing injury. Don't have rocks in
your tank. They can cause small scratches in the shell which leads to ulcers and shell rot. Many
turtles get trapped between rocks and drown.
Lids on tanks are a disaster as they cause a buildup of condensation which can literally rot the
skin off the bone. They also lead to respiratory issues such as pneumonia. If you need a protective
cover, use a mesh with a gap of 1½ cm to allow UV in and condensation out. Solid Rimu lids look
nice, but are endangering the turtle’s health. Cut neat holes through the lid to allow air exchange
and prevent your turtle from suffering. Remember never sit your Reptile light on top of glass.
A healthy turtle over 15cm can live outside in a soft environment in the North Island. The South
Island poses challenges for hibernating turtles and should only be done if you have a warm,
sheltered area for your pond and research the correct way to safely hibernate them. A soft pond
environment means either a natural clay bottomed pond or pond-liner over sand or carpet. DO NOT use
concrete and avoid any rough rocks. Have water around 60cm or more deep for adult females and
ensure there’s nothing the turtle can bang into when it slides into the water. Position your pond
for maximum sunlight, as turtles need a sunny basking area with access to shade. Artificial grass,
logs, garden or lawn make a suitable basking area. Use vermiculite or a mix of clay and loam or
fine soil to provide a suitable egg laying place for your female. For hibernation an ideal is to
have mud in the bottom of your pond, 46 cm below the frost line, for them to burrow into. Don’t
attempt hibernation without finding out some information about how to go about it successfully
first. Barley straw anchored near the bottom of the pond in one end is also great for turtles to
hibernate in. (Don't use other types of straw.)
Secure fencing is critical to prevent escapes from a pond. They can squeeze through Small gaps,
climb up netting and shrubbery, or dig their way out; particularly a female wanting to lay eggs.
I've had turtles scale a 1 metre fence! Use smooth wood or large, natural boulders or plastic
netting with an overhang at the top. A fence that the turtle can't see through is best. If they can
'see out', they want to 'get out' and become stressed trying to escape all day. Whatever you
choose, remember other animals, children and burglars can also be an issue for your turtles outside
so think carefully about where you want to position your pond.
Diet: Feeder fish, (NB/ Goldfish are considered to be too high in fat for turtles), frozen Hot
House turtle food,
earthworms , water snails, crickets, aquatic plants such as duckweed, 02 weed, watercress, azolla
etc, dry fish (all products by JBL are excellent foods), and turtle pellets.
Feeding is one of the most important functions of a turtle owner! Feed an amount of food equal to
the size of the turtles empty head. (Feed greens freely).
Hatchlings - feed daily. Adults- feed every 2nd day.
Remember...turtles live in the water and have a fish based diet, they don't climb out and eat cows!
Think green! Turtles need to eat greens! Have plants/greens in tank at all times. An all
protein/pellet diet leads to shell deformities and organ damage. Apply 'tough love' to get turtle
Protein = pond snails, worms, insects, pellets, fresh or dried fish, whitebait, ready-made 'wet'
turtle foods e.g. 'hot-
house' turtle food. Hot house food is a great source of appropriate minerals, calcium and vitamins.
You can't beat plenty of live food for any turtles to eat, especially feeder fish. JBL products
such as Energil, Classic or Agil and freeze dried crickets from Insect Direct are excellent turtle
foods. You can also use Hikari Cichlid Gold fish food for turtles. Daily = O2 weed, watercress,
duckweed, water lily leaves, azolla other aquatic plants and dandelion leaves. Occasional carrot
sticks, frilly lettuce, mesculin salad or kumara skin can be used if you are unable to source
DON'T feed any form of red meat, processed meats, cabbage, Kale, spinach, silverbeet, rhubarb,
beets, celery, broccoli, mince, dog food, raw chicken, salty fish, brussel sprouts or avocado.
(Avocado is lethal for reptiles.)
Typical Red ear turtle tank set up. Photo of turtle tank set-up.
Tank positioned near (not in) window for ease of access for cleaning but also doesnt allow sunlight
to cause algae growth. No shingle which makes cleaning so much easier and prevents intestinal
blockage, prolapse and possible death. Turtles WILL eat shingle, and you should not have any in
your tank. River stones which are larger than an adult turtles head can be used in your tank if you
want a substrate.
No rocks which can cause minor injuries to turtle shell and then over time progress to ulcerative
shell disease and possible slow death.
Driftwood for turtles to scratch on, hide behind and provide interest to the tank. Other smooth,
plastic ornaments can also be used. Plastic plants will get eaten and can cause blockages.
No lids on tank which cause condensation/ excessive humidity. This can lead to shell or respiratory
Large basking area. Reptile UVB light with no perspex cover and no glass lids to block UV light
getting to turtles. (If it doesn't say 'Reptile' on the bulb, it's no use)
Ordinary light bulb to provide warmth which encourages turtles to bask and dry out. A ceramic lamp
fitting is best
due to the amount of time the lights need to stay on every day. Basking area completely dry to
prevent issues with the plastron or skin.
Large external filter...this tank has 1 fluval 405 ad an Eheim. No carbon, ammonia remover added to
filters which will
leach toxins back into the water after about 2 weeks of use. Maximum water depth possible.
Heater WITH heater-guard as turtles will break a glass heater. I have had turtles which have EATEN
the chunks of glass and plastic from a broken heater.
Prefilter sponge to stop greens etc clogging up filter. A piece of sponge from Para rubber held on
with a twist tie is good.
Cuttlebone floating in water at all times to provide source of calcium.
Some form of 'greens' in tank at all times for turtles to nibble on. (Water lily, fancy lettuce, O2
weed and kumara skin
were in tank in this photo.)
EASTERN LONG NECK or SNAKE NECK TURTLE.
RANGE: The eastern snake-necked turtle, occurs throughout south-eastern and eastern Australia. It
is typically found in swamps, lakes, slow moving waterways, creeks and billabongs, sometimes
migrating overland during the summer months often being found wandering on overcast days during
DESCRIPTION: The long neck which gives it its name can measure over half the shell length which may
reach up to30cm in length with most averaging 20cm. Generally brown/black
all over with yellowish markings on plastron.
Specimens will emit a strong smelling liquid (called musking), as a means of defence. This,
however, ceases as they settle into captivity.
Check out the Aussie website AFT ( Australian Freshwater Turtles) for excellent care sheets on the
Australian turtle species.
BREEDING: Breeding takes place in spring or early summer. Clutch Size
may be 8 to 24 eggs with an incubation time of 3 to 4 months.
DIET: in the Australian wild includes frogs, tadpoles, small fish, yabbies and crustaceans. In
captivity they will feed on commercially prepared frozen 'hot house' turtle food, small mice,
insects and feeder fish. In general they are carnivorous and will readily eat feeder fish, bugs,
crickets, daphnia, dragonflies, earwigs, grasshoppers, flies, moths, nymphs and larvae, slaters,
water-snails, water boatmen, worms (start a worm farm...great free food) raw fish cut up to bite
LIGHTING. As for RES. However snake necks tend to float at the surface of the water rather than
climb out onto a basking ramp and so it's important to place the UVB light over the full length of
the tank, not just the basking area. They also prefer a natural piece of wood to climb up and bask
on rather than a glass ramp. You cant beat natural sunlight and they will thrive in an
appropriately set up pond and happily bask on logs near the water.
DISTRIBUTION: From southern China, Korea and southern Japan. The Reeves' is a small
semi-terrestrial turtle, usually 4 - 5 inches long.
DESCRIPTION:The shell has three well defined keels on the carapace, which is usually brown. The tail is quite
long, the body isusually grey with yellowish spots and the head has a pattern of stripes. Some Reeves entire body
and soft parts might be completely brown or black.
DIET: Eats almost anything. Commercially prepared frozen 'hot house' turtle food, JBL products,
pellets, feeder fish, earthworms, snails and some aquatic plants as above. HOUSING: The Reeves
being only semi aquatic needs to have more land area than other turtles and as they are relatively
poor swimmers a water depth of around 3 times the turtles sell length is recommended. Other than
water depth their housing, lighting and temperature range is
basically the same as Red Ear Terrapin care.
Description: It is easily recognizable by its dark pink to red plastron and lower jaw. Especially males show these bright colours during the mating season. They have a cream or yellow broad line running from their nose, behind the eye until the end of the head. The rest of the head and body is a dark grey. The shell is relatively flat, and a solid brown in colour. The edge of the shell has a slight red edge which is especially evident in young animals. plastron is a light cream colour. The amount of red may vary. Depending on sex, age and the season. Males will get up to17cm in shell length. Females up to 26cm. Males have significantly longer and thicker tail Both the male and female have two barbels under their chin.
Origin and Habitat: This species has a large distribution and occur throughout Papua New Guinea - Papua and Cape York Australia. They occur in a variety of habitats including rivers and estuaries to inland waterholes and creeks.
Housing: This is an active turtle and they need plenty of space to swim around so the enclosure for one to three animals should be at least 150x60x60 with at least 30cm of water tough deeper is better. Provide a basking place where animals can dry up completely and when needed dig in the sand to lay eggs. This dry sunny spot may reach temperatures of 35 to 40C below the hotspot. The average water and air temperature should be 25C but may rise in summer to a maximum of 30C. Use UVB solar lighting for the production of vitamin D3. Allow as muc swimming space as possible, driftwood and half terracotta pots can serve as visual barriers and under water shelters. One can choose to keep a bare bottom because of hygienic reasons but a sandy substrate will be certainly appreciate by these turtles for rooting through and foraging.
Water: Good quality of the water is essential as they don’t tolerate ammonia so a good canister filter and movement in the water is a must. Replace 25% to 50% of the water in order to prevent build-up of waste materials. Tropical root wood, catappa leaves and oak leaf slightly lower pH value and catappa has an anti-bacterial and mould-reducing effect. Males can be quite pushy once they are sexually mature. Therefore it is best to keep the sexes separate outside the breeding season. Otherwise the females otherwise get no rest.
Diet: These turtles are mainly carnivorous but will also feed on some greens and fruits when it is offered, a varied diet of Bloodworms, tubifex, worms, shrimp, (pieces of) freshwater fish, mussels, various insects, snails with shell, and some waterplants, tomatoes, carrot and fruits like mango and apple will sometimes also be eaten. Colour enhancing fish foods such as dried shrimp can help to increase the red colour on them.