By Richard Lunsford with assistance from Phil. Peak in
Louisville & Tom C.
Hi. It’s a question lots of people ask. If
you’re asking it, congratulations! You’re one of the lucky folks who thought
before you bought! A lot of people trying to unload common snappers and female
red-eared sliders who should’ve. Many years ago you kept what you could catch,
unless you wanted a wild-caught adult or sub-adult from a limited selection at
the pet-store. Things have changed. Yeah, there’s a federal law prohibiting the
sale of turtles whose carapaces are under 4 inches in the United States, but the
law allows sale of smaller turtles for educational & research purposes. Turtle
suppliers generally post notice that sales of such small turtles are for
educational & research purposes only, but the practical reality today seems that
few check & many get turtles this way. After all, maybe you’re after a beginner
research turtle! Or a classroom turtle. That could happen, right? Either
way, you can research your options & choose a species best suited for your
wants, needs & setup.
People often ask what they should get. What’s
‘best’ for me might not be for you. Turtle choice is a personal matter, &
some would argue my choices or argue I have a lot of gall dictating to people
what they should get. I’m not. I’m offering recommendations for a
newcomer wanting an enjoyable, hardy & (relatively) easy to care for pet (oh,
sorry, research specimen!) well-suited to the home he/she can provide it. Along
the way, I’ll lay out my reasoning for choosing certain species over others.
Before we get started, let’s talk about where
I’m coming from. I’m a 35 year old man living in Kentucky whose herping
experience draws from Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. Our climate is
temperate, with summers into the mid-to-high nineties and winters down into the
teens, with a few small snows in winter. I have personally worked with red-eared
sliders (RES), a southern painted turtle, a male Texas map, a male Florida
chicken turtle, a male spiny softshell, common snappers, Mississippi muds, a
young 3-striped mud, razorback musk and common musk (stinkpots). I have more
remotely kept 3-toed box turtles. My recommendations target people in the
temperate climate United States. The practicality of such things as outdoor
enclosures, ponds, etc…varies radically if you live in extreme southern Florida
(where outdoor tortoise enclosures may be practical) or northern Canada (where
an outdoor pond may be impossible) or even Texas (where you can have a pond but
must replace more water).
My biases: I prefer native U.S. turtles
to foreign (we’ll get to why), those that stay small over those that get large,
omnivores & carnivores over strict herbivores, semi-aquatic & aquatic (‘water
turtles’) over terrestrial turtles, and for beginners turtles over tortoises.
Someone will feel like arguing with me at this point!!! I believe turtles
deserve spacious living quarters that have complex terrain for exploration &
So let’s break it down! I’ll lay out my
thinking in sections. You aren’t me, & by tracing my thinking this way you can
diverge wherever your situation differs. The sections of the decision tree are:
Indoor vs. Outdoor Enclosures – What you have to put it in has a
lot to do with your choice.
Land vs. Water – Some people like tortoises & box turtles; some
like RES & stinkpots. Figure out whether you want a terrestrial or water turtle
& you greatly narrow your choices. Also see our
Choosing Your First Land-based Turtle article.
Exotic vs. U.S.A. native – There are many exotic turtles
available. The amount we know about them varies, but people do keep Mata Matas,
Chinese Big-Headed Turtles, etc... Your decision is much easier if you focus on
U.S. natives; otherwise it’s going to take awhile!
Temperate vs. Tropical
– Need a turtle that can handle the cold?
Basking vs. Bottom-Walker – Most people choose a basking turtle,
but mud & musk turtles are very popular, and to a lesser extent so are snappers
& softshells although all these may bask, too.
Common vs. Rare or Restricted Range – Not only does this affect
price & availability, but also conservation, breeding & selling.
Carnivore vs. Omnivore vs. Herbivore
– Do you have a preference?
Size/Sex – Gotta have a hatchling? Like adults?
– Albino RES, Pastel RES, Ghost RES, RES-on-a-stick…
Tap Water Quality
– Consider your tap water (hardness, pH, etc…).
The Contenders – Itemized list of common (& some less so) native
turtles sold as pets.
Battle Royale – I square-off common contenders to break it down.
Recommendations – The Win-Ahs!!! My top recommendations.
Honorable Mentions – perhaps your second turtle…
Rogues Gallery – Turtles most people should avoid.
Adoption – You have the option.
– So what if you aren’t in the U.S.A.?
– My parting thoughts.
Appendix I: Recommended Books You Should Have.
Appendix II: Where to Get a Turtle.
Appendix III: Care Sheet Resources.
One of the most critical decisions
you make. Most people start with indoor enclosures & never stray; I recommend
them for beginners. Outdoor enclosures can be healthier, more natural & support
more turtles but predator & escape-proofing is critical. Let’s look at the pro.s
Outdoor Enclosures – 300+ gallon stock tanks (very
convenient, fairly cheap, durable, spacious, widely available at farm supply
stores & often used), pre-formed ponds (widely available, fairly cheap & choice
of sizes), custom-made liner or concrete-built ponds (more planning &
construction involved, may require a big hole, you need to know more about ponds
and once in place hard to move), terrestrial pen (i.e.: fence off a small ‘yard’
for land-based captives) or your whole back yard (if fenced in & engineered to
Size – Large enough for collections of turtles or larger species,
large water volume is good to dilute waste & allow swimming room, allow exercise
room & visually appeal.
Expense – Can be high for custom ponds. Filtration systems may be
larger & more elaborate/costly. Sparsely populated larger ponds may not require
commercial filtration if you have plants.
Labor – High for pond construction, especially in-ground concrete
Portability – Poor (except stock tanks). Vary in mobility, but
often require a yard or half a room.
Climate – You don’t precisely control the temperature. An
unexpected frost or severely hot day can be a disaster if your setup isn’t
prepared (large water volume & plenty of shade) or you have the wrong species
(not cold tolerant). On the other hand, natural sunlight is better than any
commercial UV-B bulb – if it doesn’t broil your turtles due to bad enclosure
Flooding – If there’s a thunderstorm, what keeps it from flooding
& the turtles from escaping? Sure your drain can’t stop up? Can a branch fall in
the water & allow escape?
Predators – Kids, adults, cats, dogs, raccoons, coyotes, fox,
opossum, skunks, mink, dog, cat, raptors (yes, hawks are known to carry off
turtles), snakes, bull frogs, herons, cranes & who-knows-what-else I didn’t
think to mention. Security, urban or rural, is a major issue.
– some land-based turtles (i.e.: box turtles &
tortoises) are burrowers & can tunnel out of pens if not prevented.
Temporary Use – You probably won’t keep your turtles outdoors
through the winter (hibernation is possible, but I don’t recommend it for
beginners). So don’t buy a pond & get a bunch of turtles you aren’t willing to
board indoors all winter!!!
Availability – you can’t enjoy your turtles at night, in bad
Bottom Line – I don’t recommend outdoor enclosures for your first
setup. They may be best overall in the long run, but you need more understanding
& intuition to operate one properly.
Indoor Enclosures – Glass & Acrylic aquariums, Rubbermaid
plastic tubs, Kiddie Pools, home-made aquariums, etc…. Widely available, variety
of sizes, moderate pricing, made for household use, such matters as heating,
lighting and filtration are easier, & you can watch your pets at 2 a.m. if you
Size – Wide variety. Start with at least a 20 gallon long
for hatchlings. That might do for one mud turtle. Figure at least 55
gallons for 1 or 2 basking turtles, & 75 or 125 is more realistic.
Weight – Aquarium setups weigh about 10-12 lbs/gallon if filled.
A full 75 gallon tank setup weighs around 750 lbs. Be sure your floor can handle
Expense – Aquarium set-ups run a few hundred, up to maybe 2
thousand, depending on size & elaborateness. Plastic tubs & stock tanks are a
Visibility – Aquarium’s give you horizontal side-on viewing no
other enclosure can match. This is a big loss with the plastic tubs.
Breakability – Glass containers can be shattered.
Acrylic – You can scratch acrylic, although it’s lighter & more
break-resistant than glass.
Availability – You can view your pets 24/7, a huge advantage.
Bottom Line – I recommend a glass aquarium if you can afford it, a
plastic tub or stock tank if you can’t, and get as large a tank as you can up to
Land vs. Water – A.K.A. Tortoise/Box Turtle vs. Everything Else.
Space Utilization - Large outdoor land enclosures may be lower
maintenance but require a yard. Indoor land enclosures will need some kind of
substrate & cleaning is more of an issue. Tortoises & Box Turtles can only move
horizontally, not vertically, so for a given enclosure (say, a 55 gallon
aquarium), land-based pets don’t have nearly as much living space. A male RES &
a box turtle of similar size (albeit different shape) don’t get equal use out of
a 55 gallon container.
Dietary Concerns – Tortoises are generally herbivorous & many have
diets that are neither intuitive not easily reproducible (such as grasses).
Feeding abnormally high protein diets can lead to organ damage & serious
deformities such as
pyramiding (linked to discussion at Tortoise Trust; for graphic examples,
TurtleStuff.com’s pyramiding page). I consider box turtles, semi-aquatics &
aquatics to better match up with the diets most people will provide.
Size – By turtle standards, most tortoises get medium to huge, few
are really ‘small,’ and most people in the U.S. bring their turtles in for the
winter if not all year. Are you ready to convert your bedroom into a sulcata
enclosure? There are exceptions; the Egyptian tortoise stays small.
Tortoises – I do not recommend them. Their space needs, climate
requirements of tropical species, and the difficulty of reproducing a good diet
(with appropriate roughage, fiber & low-protein but good nutrition) are better
handled by seasoned keepers.
Box Turtles – Fine for outdoor enclosures under appropriate
conditions, in which they may hibernate successfully. My personal opinion is
that such an open-roaming turtle is not well-served by most aquariums & they
should have spacious enclosures. Compared to water turtles, baby box turtles are
very slow, clumsy, poor hunters & often ponder a ridiculous amount of time
before tearing into food. Keeping a few hatchling box turtles feels a lot like
running a small nursing home. A person used to baby RES can rip his hair out
working with baby box turtles.
ATP’s Article on Choosing Your First Land-Based Turtle – can help if
you’re still interested in one.
III.) Exotic vs. U.S.A. Native.
I recommend native U.S. turtles for people
living in the U.S. & Canada. Let’s take a look at varied considerations.
A.) Availability – It’s a lot easier to
get most natives than many exotics.
B.) Price – Exotics tend to cost more.
Still, the price of the turtle itself is a small percentage of total cost of
ownership over time.
C.) Knowledge Base – Do you know how to
take care of a
CHINESE GOLDEN THREAD
TURTLE (Ocadia sinensis) or MURRY RIVER SIDENECK (Emydura macquarii)?
Gee, me neither. But I know where to find out quite a bit about the Red-Eared
Slider; sliders have a few books dedicated to them, they’re mentioned in
practically every general book on keeping pet turtles & there’s even a book
profiling research on them:
Life History and Ecology of the Slider Turtle. This carries
over to the forum; questions like whether your species should bask, what it
likes to eat & whether its behavior is odd or its enclosure conditions are right
are easier to answer if you have a turtle many people keep. It’s harder finding
someone to explain how to hibernate your Reeves turtle outdoors (or even if it’s
possible or a good idea).
D.) Climate – If you ever decide to use
outdoor setups, you may need cold-tolerant temperate turtles, not tropical ones.
You never know what you may someday want to do.
F.) Disease-Resistance – A theoretical
concern, but might our native turtles not be better adapted to deal with native
bacteria, viruses, fungi & parasites? (I.E.: Cornell Univ. reported eating
some native U.S. ‘lightening bugs’ can kill a bearded dragon or chameleon,
two popular exotic lizards). If you get a wild-caught exotic, it may’ve been
through enough stress to become heavily parasitized, turtle-competent Vets can
be hard to find (here’s
ATP’s directory) & few newbies are ready for prophylactic antibiotic
treatment with prescription drugs.
Tom. C. told me his U.S.A. native turtles seem to get
sick more than his exotics, & he has a rather large collection of both. I
don’t know why this is but it’s worth noting.
Temperate vs. Tropical
Turtles adapted for temperate climates have
natural biological adaptations to survive cool periods; many can hibernate. The
most extreme case is the painted turtle, which has reportedly been known to
survive being frozen (actually freezing temp.s; the animal itself doesn’t
freeze). Tropical turtles may not have the capability to endure cold
temperatures; this may lead to outright death, pneumonia, etc… (I’m 35 years
old. When I was a kid, reptile books warned about how vulnerable some tropical
reptiles were to getting ‘a Chill.’ This was serious & often fatal. I don’t see
the term used now, but I think they referred to pneumonia). We have antibiotics,
finding a Veterinarian with the experience, competence & confidence to treat
a turtle can be an ordeal, assuming you get there in time. Besides, treating a
hatchling the size of a fifty cent piece with a series of intra-muscular Baytril
injections…well, take a guess about that one!
People who keep tropical reptiles live in fear
of wide-spread persistent winter blackouts like you get from large ice storms,
tornados, hurricanes, etc… I avoid tropicals like the plague. Not all exotic
turtles are tropical, though. Past forum discussions suggest the African
Helmeted Turtle is a fine choice for a first exotic, & the Chinese golden thread
(care like a RES) & Reeves turtles are also popular.
Basking vs. Bottom-Walker
These terms refer to your main options in water
turtles. Softshells fit neither.
A.) Basking turtles (i.e.:
cooters, sliders, painteds, maps) tend to be ‘frisbee’ shaped albeit
elongated/oval viewed from above, much less domed than box turtles & snappers
but more so than softshells. Cooters are often more strongly domed than most,
but female RES can be, too. They take their name from climbing out of the water
& sunning themselves on logs, rocks & the bank; these are the ones most people
see in ponds, lakes & rivers. Babies tend to be vividly colored & adults
somewhat so. They vary in size from male Texas maps & Southern painteds (under
milk saucer-sized) to huge female cooters with carapace lengths around 13
inches. Generally omnivorous with varying but significant herbivory. They tend
to acclimate to humans readily, vigorously beg for food by swimming at the tank
wall, & generally appear enthusiastic & interactive. Easy to feed by hand & feed
from all levels of the water column. Stereotype: red-eared slider.
B.) Bottom-Walkers (i.e. mud & musk
turtles) tend to look like an egg viewed from the side, with a flattened-off
bottom. Often mistaken for box turtles by novices. Razorback musk and juvenile
stinkpots have a strong keel down the back reminiscent of slate or an arrow
head. Tend to have much drabber colors than baskers. These turtles do in fact
bask, but less & since they are smaller & drabber often people don’t get close
enough to identify them basking in the wild. Often regarded as ‘truly aquatic,’
as are softshells, but mud turtles are semi-terrestrial (also spend a lot of
time on land). Small turtles (carapace length around 4 inches, give or take).
Omnivores with a strong carnivorous bent & you might never see your captive eat
a plant. Note: some (stinkpots & Eastern muds) are active before dawn &
after dark as well as morning & evening, in case that appeals to you. Hatchlings
& young juveniles tend to be very shy & may take awhile to acclimate to humans.
They generally feed close to or on the bottom & don’t instinctively take to
top-water hand-feeding as quickly as baskers. None-the-less, they beg for food &
learn to hand-feed. Snappers are technically bottom-walkers but far larger & not
recommended for beginners. Stereotype: common musk turtle (stinkpot).
Common vs. Rare or Restricted Range
You can buy turtles who are rare/threatened
(like spotted or Blandings turtles) or have restricted range (some map turtles),
or both (like the Texas & Cagles map turtles) or those who are common with large
ranges (like RES, Southern Painted, Stinkpots, etc…). There are also turtles
that for reasons not always clear just aren’t common in the pet trade; the
Chicken turtle and loggerhead musk come to mind.
Some rare turtles are wild-caught & falsely
labeled captive bred or long-term captives; their purchase encourages depletion
of wild populations. They might become outlawed in your state, which could be
inconvenient. They often command high prices; Cagles map and Blandings
hatchlings tend to run over $100 apiece; standard RES hatchlings sell under $10
apiece. Some need fairly specialized habitats (spotted turtles come to mind due
to palludarium-style needs; map turtles are more river-based instead of
river/lake/pond/stream/creek generalists like RES, etc…) So for keepers planning
solo pets, I don’t recommend rare &/or restricted turtles.
Common broad-ranging turtles are likely hardy &
adaptable or they wouldn’t be so successful. They are cheap, widely available,
less likely to deplete wild populations and you can probably choose one from
your geographical area, if you wish.
Special Exception: Breeding – the
rare & unusual command higher prices, greater demand, & are more likely to be
sought & bought by skilled keepers. If you breed for the pet trade you may
encourage species survival (if only in captivity) & ease demand for wild-caught
specimens while modeling conservationist behavior. Some people breed spotted
turtles, for instance. If your spotted turtle pair breeds, people may pay you
$150 apiece & offer them good homes. If your RES pair breeds, you’ll be begging
people to take them for free & maybe paying the shipping, as well as
contributing to the over-abundance of turtles programs like
Turtle Homes can’t unload nearly fast enough as it is (check out their
slider page for placements; very sobering reading). If you’re going to breed
turtles, get something unusual that commands market value & seasoned keepers.
Carnivore vs. Omnivore vs. Herbivore
Broad-based generalizations in nature:
Herbivores tend to have long digestive tracts with slow transit times designed
to allow large volumes of low-nutrient food to gradually digest, aided by
bacterial action (think of a cow’s multiple stomachs). Carnivore tracts tend to
be shorter with quicker transit time since the food is more easily digested (the
domestic ferret has an estimated G.I. transit time of about 4 hours). I would
expect the bacterial colonization of the digestive tracts to differ radically.
Omnivores tend to have intermediate digestive system designs. The organ systems
(liver, kidneys, etc…) for an animal are designed for the nutrients absorbed
from a normal diet for its species. A herbivore’s system is not designed
for the heavy protein loads of typical captive turtle diets, including the
metabolic breakdown products that result from that diet.
It may be harder to insure a nutritionally
complete healthy diet in a near-strict herbivore like some tortoises than in
an omnivore or carnivore. Many turtle feeders feed rather high protein diets, so
I tend to favor turtles with a hefty meat component to the diet.
Many people enjoy watching their turtles hunt
down, catch, kill & eat live prey. Watching a tortoise close in on some hay
won’t cut it. Others (whom I tend to think lead very sheltered lives!!!) ‘feel
the pain’ of the lowliest feeder cricket & just aren’t ready for the Circle of
Life. I guess that’s what frozen food’s for)! You can use commercial foods like
Mazuri or ReptoMin for your turtle’s protein-based food needs, but I wonder
about what ‘fun’ they’re missing from live food. Be sure you’re comfortable
feeding what the turtle will eat. Some are finicky & at least initially won’t
eat most commercial foods!
If you’re a vegetarian who won’t feed your
turtle any animal derivative, you may not be an appropriate owner for anything
but the most herbivorous tortoises (if those). Be ready for some work.
Bottom-line: a carnivore or omnivore
would be best for most people.
Age: Do you want to start with a recent
hatchling? Cute, you get that ‘egg to grave’ experience and you can socialize it
from the start. Of course, it’s also fragile, awkward, slow, a clumsier hunter &
more likely to get sick & die, sometimes for no discernible reason. Shipping
(even overnight) is hard on little guys.
Sex: Female turtles tend to be larger
(there are exceptions – like alligator snappers). This tendency is severe in
softshells & some maps (i.e.: Barbour’s), fairly strong in cooters & RES, and
not so obvious in mud/musk. Females may potentially become egg bound. Males may
produce their penises, which in tanks with multiple individuals may result in
another turtle biting it (can entail serious injury). Males may be more prone to
fight with their own species due to territory issues or persistently harass
females to mate.
I recommend you not mix different sexes of
turtles known to interbreed, such as painted turtle subspecies with each other
or a yellow belly slider & a RES. This produces mongrels you may not want yet
will have a hard time unloading. They could theoretically cause more ecological
damage in the wild given they aren’t as specifically adapted as either parent
species. In fact, unless you’re ready to breed turtles, I recommend you
don’t mix those that can, period. Someone posted after discovering unexpected
baby painted turtles swimming around an enclosure; the owner didn’t even know
the adults had mated!
Size: For indoor enclosures smaller
turtles have more space relative to their size & are often preferred (i.e.: a
southern painted over a RES). For outdoor enclosures, smaller turtles are
vulnerable to more predators (crows, hawks, herons, etc…). Some of the smallest
turtles (southern painted, Texas/Cagles/Black-knobbed map, some musk) don’t
penetrate into the northern U.S., & in theory may be less winter-hardy if
hibernation is expected.
Bottom-line: Hatchings are usually not
sexable & are more prone to get sick & die. A sub-adult male (due to smaller
size) is the best all around choice for most, but for groups females might
get along better. A turtle will a smaller projected adult size is usually the
best choice, but for outdoor keeping (esp. if hibernation is expected) your
decision may change dramatically.
In recent years several color morph.s became
available. Albino RES are widely available online and run around $130 apiece,
give or take. Many turtles are sold who are abnormally pale, largely white or
yellowish & labeled hypo-melanistic. I’ve even seen some dealers market some
peculiar ‘ghost’ RES. Albinos are produced by selective breeding natural albinos
(that arose by mutation) with normal turtles. Some speculate some color morph.s
(i.e.: pastel RES) are produced by playing with incubation temperatures,
although that’s rumor.
Albinos & other very light turtles would be
caught & killed by predators within a month of hatching in the wild. Even adults
are more vulnerable in the wild. The upshot is, if there is any credible risk
your turtle will ever get dumped back into the wild, do not get a color-morph
specimen. I’m not saying it’s okay to dump regular ones in the wild, but color
morphs are that much worse.
Albino RES are sometimes almost blind for
awhile right after hatching & may require special care, such as putting food
right in front of their faces. This resolves over time. They may still have the
‘red ears’ which makes them beautiful, although as adults blood perfusion may
give some body parts a pinkish cast slightly reminiscent of a plucked chicken.
It’s been suggested they might be at risk for sunburn; obviously their instincts
as basking turtles will NOT take this into account. I have not heard people
speak of keeping them outdoors, and until I do, I don’t recommend it. Albinos
look ‘cute,’ but if you want a wild animal to begin with, why not stick with a
natural one? I don’t recommend albinos or other drastic color morphs as first
turtles. Get to know natural turtles before you move into unnatural ones.
With any color morph. you must always remember
that you own a freak. It is not a representative of a naturally occurring wild
animal, any more than one of those yellow Burmese pythons is natural. It will
cost more up front & it’s marketability down the road may vary. Thus far color
morph.s are very expensive, and only RES morph.s are commonly available.
Bottom line: I suggest you avoid color
morphs for your first.
Here’s an advanced discussion on designer turtles.
Tap Water Quality
This isn’t likely to matter much
with the turtles I recommend. It may with specialty species like some South
American exotics. Consider testing your tap water (pet stores sell aquarium
water test kits for pH, hardness, ammonia, nitrite & nitrate). Many U.S. cities
offer moderately to very hard alkaline tap water. It can be hard to create soft,
acidic water without resorting to chemical additives like the Proper pH line,
that alter the pH & artificially buffer the water in that range. Such maneuvers
as adding distilled or reverse-osmosis (RO) water to reduce hardness &
alkalinity are labor-intensive & costly over time. Eventually you’ll resort to
using straight tap water, commercial additives or give up the turtle. Research
the turtle you are considering. If it needs soft, acidic water & you’ve got
hard, alkaline tap water, move on.
So, you want a natural color/pattern native
U.S. turtle for a ‘first turtle.’ That leaves a lot of turtles routinely seen in
the pet trade. Let’s take a look at some native U.S. species so you can
brainstorm about what you want. When I discuss several members from a larger
group (painted subspecies, softshell species, mud & musk turtles as a group,
etc…) I discuss group first, then touch on species or subspecies in it
Note: I do not
recommend tortoises, snappers or softshells for beginners & do not consider them
serious contenders for a newcomer’s first turtle.
Note: All carapaces sizes are
rough ranges chosen after consulting
Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern and Central
North America (use link to view details & buy it),
Turtles of the United States and Canada (ditto), ATP care sheets & member
knowledge. Be warned that your well-fed warm & cozy captive may push
or exceed the upper limits given! Some turtles (i.e.: snappers) are more
massive than their carapace length suggests, & turtles are significantly longer
than their carapaces.
Box Turtles – Terrestrial dome-shaped medium-sized turtles wide-spread
in the U.S., available in at least 2 species (& additional sub-species) & varied
colors. Predominantly carnivorous as juveniles & omnivorous as adults. The
babies are slow, hesitant & can be frustrating to work with compared to water
turtles. Potentially very long-lived. Enclosures must take into account climbing
& burrowing ability. Some have difficulty adjusting to glass enclosures. Phil.
Peak noted some believe they need natural sunlight to stay in top shape. They
suffer greatly due to habitat destruction & the road kill situation is an
outright mass slaughter. Their omnivorous diet lends itself to the feeding
habits of many turtle keepers. They enjoy soaking in water and often poop while
soaking (change water often!). They have very limited swimming ability & can
drown fairly easily. This turtle has a hinged plastron & can close up tightly
for full protection unless obese. Box turtles are fairly challenging to ‘do
right,’ & you’d better read some care sheets before committing. You need a
hatchling since wild-caughts (most pet store box turtles are) may not adapt well
to captivity. Eastern box turtles are most popular, 3-toeds a fine
alternative, Florida & Gulf Coast box more specialty turtles (due to humidity
needs) & Ornate box turtles are problem-prone in captivity & a poor choice.
species/sub-species): Eastern 4.5 – 6.” Florida 5 – 6.5.” 3-Toed 4.5 – 5.”
Gulf Coast (largest) up to 8.5”. Ornate 4 – 5 (up to 6) in. Desert 4 - 5 in.
(maybe up to 6).
Sliders - medium-large basking turtles wide-spread in the U.S. & widely
introduced elsewhere by pet release. Wild sliders live in a wide variety of
aquatic habitats; river, lake, pond, creek, etc… Predominantly carnivorous as
hatchlings with a shift to predominant herbivory with growth, though even adults
choose meat over plant matter if offered both (like kids choosing candy over
salad). Quite hardy, interactive (beg for food & eat from your fingers), active
swimmers, handle deep water well, need basking areas but not much land area
(unless females becoming egg-bound is a concern). Males can get large & female
very large; I consider large females inappropriate for indoor aquaria under 125
gallons (I’m not impressed with their suitability). Plan to keep a male
in no less than 75 and preferably 125 gallons. Males may sexually harass females
excessively or fight amongst themselves. There are 3 common problems with
sliders: 1.) Enclosure’s too small/crowded. 2.) People feed way too much
protein. 3.) People give in to begging, feed way too much, cause too rapid
growth & risk organ damage, shell deformity & shortened life span. 3 Main
subspecies, all with identical care. Since RES may occur more northerly,
I’d choose them for areas year-round outdoor keeping & winter hibernation is
Red Eared Sliders (RES) – Far & away the #1 pet turtle by numbers, & the
most well-known slider sub-species. This is the classic little green turtle with
red ‘ear’ patches. Central & southern U.S.; widely introduced elsewhere. Most
wide-spread slider. Size: males 7-9”, females 10-12”; males are also
flatter). There’s an ‘ornate RES,’ also called the Rio Grande slider (don’t
confuse with the Rio Grande Cooter).
Yellow-Bellied Sliders – Like RES minus the pretty red patches (have a
diagonal yellow slash instead). Reputedly more domed than RES (possibly to
resist alligators). May appeal to those who like sliders but want ‘something
different.’ Southeastern U.S.; much smaller range than RES. Size: Males 5
– 8”, females 8-13”.
Cumberland Sliders – Like RES minus the pretty red patches. Can be hard
to tell from atypical RES, have a smaller native range, & don’t show up in the
hobby as often. Small natural range, mostly in Eastern Tennessee. Size:
males 7-9”, females 10-12”; males are also flatter).
Painted Turtles - Painteds are fairly hardy basking turtles with the only
coast-to-coast range of any U.S. turtle (counting all 4 subspecies). Males are
smaller than females. Painted turtles are very similar to sliders but southern &
midland painteds stay significantly smaller & painted adults’ omnivorous diet is
more protein-heavy, which might enable them to better tolerate the
protein-heavy diets many keepers feed. Like sliders, come from a wide variety of
habitat but at least in the south tend toward heavily vegetated still waters.
It’s been suggested painted turtles are somewhat less hardy than sliders; but
they’re generally regarded as hardy (southern painted hatchlings do have a rep.
for being somewhat delicate). Painted turtles are very popular pets regarded as
low-maintenance generalists without any major special requirements. 4
Subspecies. Eastern, Western & Midland occur far enough north to be
worthy choices for year-round outdoor keeping & hibernation; southerns penetrate
just past northern Arkansas & Tennessee so hibernation is an option in the
middle U.S. You might choose to match size with tank mates.
Southern Painted Turtles –the smallest painted subspecies. The carapace
is black but the anterior scute margins are lighter, giving a trimmed effect. It
has a plain yellowish plastron, less intense red-orange on the underside of the
carapace rim, & the signature marking of a single red or orange stripe down the
center of the carapace. The upshot is, you pay for that dorsal stripe by getting
less flashy color on the rest of the turtle. Hatchlings have a rep. for being
somewhat delicate. Size: Males 3.5 – 5”; females 5.5 – 7”.
Midland Painted Turtles – A bit larger than a Southern, carapace varies
from black to green & may have a vestigial dorsal stripe, has a ‘color-burst’ on
the plastron (not as flashy as a Western painted’s) & vivid red-orange under the
carapace rim. Pretty viewed through the side of an aquarium. Size: Males
4 – 6”; females 6 – 8”.
Eastern Painted Turtles
– Roughly same size as a midland. Black carapace
with carapace scute ‘rim trim’ like a southern, minimal or no dorsal stripe & a
plain plastron. Basically, like a larger southern painted without the stripe;
may be nearly RES-sized. Sizes: Males 4 – 6”; females 6 – 8”.
Western Painted Turtles – Biggest painted & may be green instead of
black. The plastron has an elaborate & beautiful ‘color-burst’ effect. Almost
equal RES in size. Sizes: Males 4 – 7”; females 8 – 10”.
– Much like sliders only larger & often thicker; females can get
huge (some very thick) & are not appropriate for most indoor enclosures.
More herbivorous than sliders, and may not be well-adapted for the high-protein
diets many keepers use. Cooters have a rep. for a more laid-back, easy-going
personality than sliders. For year-round outdoor keeping in the central or
northern U.S., plan on a species with more northern penetrance (i.e.: Red-belly
turtle instead of Alabama Red-belly or Florida Red-belly turtle).
Varies with species; Peterson’s lists 6 species, with 4 going up to 13 inches.
River cooters get the longest SCL. Females are much larger (like sliders) & can
hit 15 inches. Coosters max. out much larger than RES.
Red-belly Turtles – 3 species of cooter, including the red-belly,
Alabama red-belly & most common in the pet trade, the
Florida Red-belly Turtle. The Red-belly & Fl Red-belly account for a small
but significant minority of pet turtles (the Alabama Red-belly is one of only 2
non-marine U.S. turtles designated ‘Endangered’ & practically absent from the
pet trade). Given their size & the relative paucity of owners I do not recommend
these as first turtles to cut your teeth on, since painteds & sliders are
smaller & better known. Only the red-belly occurs farther north (in the
northeast). Size: Florida Cooter: Males 7.5 – 9”; Females 9 – 16”.
(Florida Red Belly male 7 – 9”, female 11-13”).
Map Turtles – Map turtles are basking turtles of decent range/availability,
beautiful, distinctive looking, and size varies widely with males
small-to-medium & females medium-to-large (in map turtles, gender matters).
River turtles; not likely in isolated water bodies like cattle ponds. Also
called saw backs due to knob-like projections from the top of the dorsal midline
carapace (varies by species). Maps have a rep. for being more skittish/nervous
than other baskers, & such aren’t preferred for rooms with heavy activity (some
are calm & docile). They also reputedly need pristine water quality & are prone
to shell problems if such is not maintained (Cagles & Black-knobbed are reputed
to be bad about this; common maps supposedly aren’t). More carnivorous than
sliders & in theory may tolerate captive diets well. For reasons unknown their
shells are prone to heavy algae growth.
Mississippi Map Turtles –Mississippi maps are a sub-species of the false
map (this is controversial; some disagree), medium-sized with strong yellow
striping on the head & neck & a pretty yellow crescent behind the eyes, and
noticeable keeling/knobs down the top of the carapace. The stereotype map
turtle, & probably the most common in the pet trade. Sizes: Males 3.5
– 5”, Females 6 – 10”.
Common Map Turtles – Beautiful & under-appreciated in the hobby. Thinner
yellow head lines than the Mississippi & lack the crescent behind the eye. Often
has much less prominent knobs on the back; this is a matter of taste, but some
like more back-notching on maps. The common map has less, and the black-knobbed
has a lot. Common maps also appear in smaller stream-like habitats where I’ve
not seen other map species (perhaps a better match with captive aquaria).
Per Tom C. common maps appear less pristine water
quality-dependent. They have a much stronger northern U.S.-presence than
other maps, even touching extreme southern Canada. Sizes: Males 4 –
6.25”, Females 7 – 10.75”.
Texas Map Turtles – The smallest map turtles, especially the Texas map.
Both have small ranges in Texas & their status in the wild is shaky. Texas maps
are smaller & have a rep. for a calm disposition; Cagles are more ornate but
have a rep. for requiring pristine water quality. If you like map turtles,
really small turtles & something rare/special, one of these could be it.
Texas Sizes: Males 2.75 – 4.5”, Females 4 – 8 3/8”. Cagles Sizes:
Males 2.75 – 5”, Females 4” to 7 15/16”.
Black-Knobbed Map Turtles – Distinctive maps with prominent ‘knobs’ on the
dorsal spine (black-tipped), with males staying small but females getting fairly
large. Per Tom C. one of those maps sensitive to poor water quality. Moderately
available & affordable in the hobby. There are northern & southern subspecies.
From Alabama & part of Mississippi. Sizes: Males 3 – 4”, Females 6 –
Chicken Turtles – A medium-sized relatively short-lived mainly
carnivorous basking turtle (females get large), with 3 subspecies (the Florida
is more ornate & most popular in the pet trade). They are a small minority in
the pet trade. Noted for long necks & a ‘strike & suck’ attack to catch prey.
Egg incubation requires cooling for diapause. In
Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles (Page 117), Russ Gurley notes
baby chicken turtles are a little more delicate than slider babies. Our forum
membership experience supports this. Hatchlings cost $50-75 apiece.
Phil. Peak stated “Wild-caught is what’s usually
available, and from what I understand W/C adults often fare poorly in this
species. They are also often plagued by a form of shell rot, especially in the
western part of their range (such as Louisiana), much like the bacteria that
attacks the rear marginals in razorback musk from that region. I have heard from
a bud of mine that keeps these, that captive bred are a bit trickier with
chickens also, and the eggs often diapause. He keeps Florida chickens, and they
are pretty neat. They seem to have gold reticulations on their carapace.”
I see captive-bred hatchlings in the pet trade & they are available (may require
some looking, though). Southeastern & south-central U.S.; can hibernate but not
a good choice for northern winters outdoors. Size: Males 4 – 7”, Females
up to 13”.
Mud & Musk Turtles - Musk & Mud turtles are generally hardy largely
carnivorous turtles that have a small adult size. Some (common musk, 3-striped
mud, Mississippi mud) have yellow head stripes; some others have a streaked
carapace look (loggerhead, stripe-neck & razorback musk). They are
bottom-walkers & eat a lot of invertebrates, particularly insects & snails. Musk
are more thoroughly aquatic & reputedly more active than muds.
Musk turtles have a reduced plastron; mud turtle plastrons are larger &
better developed. No 2 turtles are guaranteed to get along but when these don’t
tolerate each other they can bite legs off (seems more an issue with mixing the
same species or look-a-likes). A poster on Kingsnake thought muds were hardier
than stinkpots. I asked Phil. Peak about that;
he said “Individual experience may vary, but I consider
musk turtles to be at least as hardy as muds. In past years I have lost mud
turtles for mysterious reasons, this after raising them through the hatchling
stage. “ Phil. Peak told me musk appear more active than mud; he
considers a 20 gallon-long tank adequate for a pair of muds but not for musk
(figure maybe a 30 long?). Then again, will there be adequate land area for a
mud in a small tank? Maybe not.
Common Musk Turtle – (the stinkpot.) The stinkpot has a huge natural
range. Varies from brown to slate black. Juveniles have a strongly keeled
carapace but they’re smooth & oval as adults. Active late night/early morning &
late evening/early night. Stinkpots don’t tolerate brackish water & are more
vulnerable to dehydration than, say, Eastern mud turtles. They bask more than is
commonly supposed but rarely venture onto land like mud turtles do. The most
common mud/musk in the U.S. pet trade. Size: 2 – 5” (typically around
Razorback Musk Turtle – Tan-brown & speckled/streaked-looking; keeled
carapace like a young stinkpot’s but lifelong. Phil.
Peak notes they’re shier than stinkpots, but individuals vary.
Razorbacks are a southern species I wouldn’t recommend for outdoor
hibernation up north. They get larger than stinkpots. Size: 4 – 6”.
Loggerhead Musk Turtle – Much lighter base color than stinkpots,
speckled/streaked & can have enormous heads. Harder to come by & more expensive
than stinkpots but still affordable. Some turtle farms are located in Florida
where the loggerhead is a protected species, which might account for their
limited availability in the pet trade. More expensive & harder to come by is the
other sub-species, the striped-neck musk turtle. Size: 3 – 5.5”.
Eastern Mud Turtle – There are a couple of ‘extra’ sub-species;
the Florida &
Mississippi muds. The regular Eastern superficially resembles the stinkpot,
but has a larger plastron & no yellow head stripes. Some coastal populations can
tolerate brackish water & muds spend more time on land (unlike musk).
Phil. Peak told me he’s lost several healthy active
specimens to drowning over the years (a couple such occurances were in winter
with temp. sub optimal for activity) yet hasn’t had this problem with his other
turtles. He’s now reluctant to keep them in over 6 inches of water. It’s
not known just what depth they should have, but ‘shallow’ seems indicated. Phil.
thinks they may get disoriented at night in deeper water. Recall that wild
habitat usually slopes, unlike vertical tank walls. These dark brown turtles are
fine, hardy & stay fairly small but in my opinion they’re unnecessarily drab.
Consider a Missippi or 3-striped mud instead. Size: 3 – 5”.
Mississippi Mud Turtle – A sub-species of the Eastern Mud Turtle with
one major difference; it has yellow stripes on the side of its head like a
stinkpot, except a stinkpot’s stripes run to the nose & a Miss. mud’s stop at
the eyes. More colorful than a standard Eastern; larger than the 3-striped &
lacks its more colorful shell. Phil. Peak in Louisville regards these as
particularly shy; my youngster is. But Phil.
also stated “…as my colony of Mississippi muds are
getting older, they are becoming progressively less shy. In fact, I would go as
far as to say they are very much outgoing.” Size: 3 – 5”.
3-Striped Mud Turtle – Okay, here’s ‘the money.’ The most ornate
mud/musk turtle. Some consider it about the smallest mud/musk you’re likely to
find (though it’s not obvious from comparing the field guide listings). It has
yellow head stripes & may have 3 stripes on the carapace, pretty readily
available & has a more ‘stinkpot’ personality without
the shyness of the Mississippi mud (per Phil. Peak in Louisville).
Hatchlings can be very tiny; I’ve held one slightly longer than the diameter of
a dime. Hatchling care is complicated by the need for warm but very shallow
water (starting out around 0.5 - 1” deep!) due to drowning risk. There have been
a # of deaths with onset of sickness within 2 weeks of acquisition, so
hatchlings are considered quite delicate (have the enclosure ready, a basking
area & lamp already in place, etc…) Frequently recommended – but don’t
get one under SCL > 1” if you can help it. Size: 3 – 4”.
Yellow Mud Turtle – A Texas-centered mud turtle with a lighter
brown carapace than an Eastern & a pale yellowish lower jaw, giving it a comical
appearance not unlike some side-neck turtles. Fairly popular. Some burrow into
the ground terrestrially & aestivate for extended periods, so if you keep one
outside & it ‘vanishes,’ don’t freak out; it may have dug in. Size: 4 –
Pond Turtles – A varied group of variably aquatic/terrestrial
turtles more water-based than box turtles but less so than sliders, cooters &
painteds. These guys deserve palludarium-style enclosures (at least 1/3’rd land,
at least 1/3’rd water) which are shallower & more challenging to design & manage
than standard aquatic setups. None are true beginner turtles.
Spotted Turtles – Small oval turtles, black with yellow speckles, widely
known & loved in the enthusiast community. Classified as a bog turtle (but not
the bog turtle), spending a lot of time both on land and in water.
Therefore, terrarium design is tricky. They need a lot more water than a box
turtle & more land than a RES. They need shallow water (harder to filter & keep
clean, but risk drowning in deep setups), ideally with a sloping bank & objects
in the water to rest on. Despite small size, you’ll need a large enclosure to
provide both land & water in spacious supply. They are expensive but do breed in
captivity. Dominant males may drown juveniles or females. Widely regarded as a
specialty turtle. About $125 -150 apiece. Size: 3.5 – 5”.
Bog Turtles – ‘the’ bog turtle of the bog turtles, very small &
very rare in the wild. They enjoy variable legal protection, are hard to find &
command very high prices (youngsters were around $900 apiece at the 2004 Daytona
Reptile Breeders’ Expo, & then by law only sold to those with a valid Florida
driver’s license). They’ve got a rep. for being problem-prone in captivity & are
considered an intermediate class species, not a beginner turtle.
Wood Turtles – Medium-sized semi-terrestrial/semi-aquatics. Drab brown
hatchlings yield fairly colorful, striking adults. Some consider them one of the
more intelligent turtles with distinctive personalities. More terrestrial than
most aquatics but still much more water-based than box turtles (i.e.: hibernate
only in water!). North-eastern & some north-central U.S. Their numbers have
declined in the wild. They stand to benefit from more spacious enclosures (both
land & shallow water) than most ‘semi’ aquatics, & have ‘special needs’ (large
land & water areas; cooler temp.s) enough I don’t recommend them for
first turtles. Some literature indicates they’re more aggressive amongst
themselves & with other turtles than many species.
Phil. from Louisville has one, really likes it, says the personality stuff he
read is 100% true and it’s rapidly becoming one of his favorite turtles. He
believes their terrestrial/aquatic preference may vary with time of year. He
notes males are said to be absolutely brutal with females & some people won’t
even attempt breeding because they can’t stand to watch!
Around $100 apiece. Size: 5.5 – 8 in.
Blandings Turtles – Medium-sized mainly carnivorous
semi-terrestrial basking turtle mostly water-based but does venture on land.
Have long necks & a ‘strike & vacuum’ maneuver like a chicken turtle’s. Eat a
lot of crayfish in nature. North-eastern & north-central U.S. More of a
shallower enclosure turtle & prefer cooler temp.s than some. They are under
significant pressure in the wild. I don’t recommend them as beginner turtles as
they are expensive, somewhat hard to find & have special enclosure needs. One
seller gets ~ $125/apiece for yearlings. One dealer specifically likes
Blandings for reasons including: 1.) Size (which he gave as 8 – 10 inches!) – a
size he likes to worth with (not too big or small). 2.) They’re threatened (he
likes to focus his personal attention on species needing captive propagation).
3.) Native to Illinois & the county he lives in (he’s seen them in the wild
since childhood). 4.) Super long necks (for a North American species). 5.)
Yellow & Black are his 2 favorite colors. 6.) They’re fun to watch eat & dive
out of the water for food. 7.) Cold-tolerant so perfect for Northern
Illinois. 8.) Distinctive: no other turtle looks like that. He said Blandings hatchlings can be tricky & are not as hardy as one would think.
Size: 5 – 7 in.
Western Pond Turtles – Medium-sized & very similar-looking to
Blandings turtles, albeit with a much browner base color vs. a Blanding’s black
base. A far southwestern species protected in California (& every state it
occurs in), where they are under pressure in the wild, & have a very limited
captive-bred presence in the hobby. At the 2004 Daytona Reptile Breeders’ Expo.
hatchlings were $300 & roughly 4” SCL juveniles $400. Not recommended for
beginners due to rarity.
Softshell Turtles - Medium/large males & very large females.
Pancake-shaped with long noses & fleshy lips. Fascinating, beautiful and
decidedly different. Softshells are generally flowing water habitat (rivers &
streams) turtles that like to bury themselves in sand. They can swim very fast.
Largely carnivorous. Softshells are sensitive to water quality and prone to
infections. They may require extra caution when such common treatments as iodine
& salt are used for disease conditions. Softshells are among the most aquatic
turtles, although they bask. They may tolerate tank mates or viciously attack
(they’re most dangerous to other softshells; stick to one softy per tank).
Softshells can inflict a wicked bite; forum Admin. Chris H. had to have 6
stitches after his Chinese softshell nailed him. Some believe they should have a
sand substrate (making filtration & cleaning tricky), some say a fine gravel
substrate is good enough, & some think you can get by with plenty of cover so
the turtle feels secure. Softshell enclosure design & ongoing maintenance
(including the increased likelihood of having to treat infections) make
softshells a lousy choice as a beginner turtle. It’s suspected large female
Floridas could take off a finger.
Spiny Softshell – The stereotypical softshell. 7 subspecies (6 in the
U.S.) Probably the most common softshell in the U.S. pet trade. Males tend to
retain juvenile coloration but in females the rings/ocelli spread out to make
lichen-like blotches. More prone to bask on emergent objects (i.e.: logs) in the
wild than smooth softshells; both bask on banks. Juveniles can overeat & die,
particularly if not kept alone. In Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles,
Page 127, Russ Gurley states “Hatchling Spiny Soft-shelled turtles are somewhat
more resilient and accepting of a wider range of water conditions than other
species of soft-shelled turtles.” The Amphibians and Reptiles of Arkansas
(Trauth, Robison & Plummer) Page 241 states spinies inhabit a wider variety of
habitats than smooths, from small streams to large rivers, small ponds to large
lakes & even roadside ditches (Note: I’ve found an adult in a creek &
many in a large stream, but in my experience they stick to flowing water
habitat). Sizes (4 Subspecies): Eastern females 7 - 17 in, males 5 – 9.25
in, Western females 7 – 18 in, males 5 – 7.25 in, Gulf Coast females 7 – 17 7/8
in, males 5 – 8 in., Guadalupe females 7 – 16 5/8 in, males 5 – 8.5 in.
Smooth Softshell – Very similar to the spiny (& a bit smaller),
and sometimes hard to distinguish from them. In the wild bask on banks but less
prone to use emergent objects than spinies. Juveniles can overeat & die,
particularly if not kept alone (Read about it at:
Eating issue). On the whole, I get the impression they’re decent pets but
maybe a little more prone to problems than spiny softshells. Uncommon but
available in the pet trade. Sizes: Females 6.5 – 14 in, males 4.5 – 7 in.
Florida Softshell – As per spiny & smooth softies, with one glaring
difference; males are very large and females are enormous. The carapace may have
more of a tree bark look in some than the other two species (juveniles’ fetching
‘dark smoky leopard’ coloration may be lost with growth). Although Florida’s are
more likely to be found in water bodies besides rivers (say, ponds) and thus you
might think are better adapted for pet enclosures, their raw size makes them
unworkable. Sadly, probably 2’nd most common softy in the U.S. pet trade. Not a
beginner turtle. Sizes: Females 11 – 24.75 in. (must be seen to be
believed), males 6 – 12.75 in.
Chinese Softshell – mentioned here as an introduced (invasive)
species in Hawaii (so dubiously a ‘U.S. species’) easily obtained in some parts
of the U.S. (such as China-Town food markets – read up on this in Appendix II
before patronizing them!). Chinese softshells are smaller than North American
species (yet still medium-large) & have a reputation for violently defending
themselves when handled (which is quite a challenge). Not recommended as a
beginner turtle. Size: up to 10” SCL.
Snappers – Very large, massively-built turtles with large heads,
powerful jaws & very long tails. There are 2 genera; Macroclemys
(alligator snappers) & Chelydra (common snapper subspecies). All are
omnivorous in the wild but typically strongly carnivorous in captive settings,
prone to obesity if over-fed, grow fairly fast (common snappers much faster than
sliders) & may be hostile to other turtles, including their own species.
Snappers past hatchling-stage require solitary confinement in large enclosures
(realistically 200 gallon minimum for adult commons) with powerful filtration.
Large snappers are dangerous if handled.
Common Snapper – The babies are cute, common, & found in water bodies as
small as dirt road mud holes. Adults are massive & can clear 30 lbs (fattened
captives can clear 50), & wild ones are very capable of defense & spin around
fast. The strike is quite fast. Wild adult commons are very dangerous to handle
if you don’t know what you’re doing, & dangerous even if you do. About the
hardiest turtle I know; have been seen swimming under ice. Omnivorous but in
captivity appear heavily carnivorous (offer plants anyway). Commons have a
powerful head lunge & sometimes expand the throat to vacuum in prey; one of the
few turtles that can efficiently catch healthy small fish. A large turtle
produces a lot of waste & keepers need powerful filtration & possibly large
water changes in big enclosures (like 300 gallon stock tanks). They will eat
from the hand but can accidentally grab fingers. If you have a young child & an
adult common snapper, you’re got an accident waiting to happen.
A Kingsnake poster described a wrist bite a large wild
one inflicted on a friend that broke bones. Not a good first turtle.
Largest U.S. range of any turtle. Sizes:
8 – 15” (huge old one may hit 19”). Wild ones run around 20-30+ lbs (larger up
north), but captives can clear 50 lbs.
Florida Snapper – A subspecies of common snapper noteworthy
because there are more horny projections on the tail & the carapace may be more
domed (possibly to resist alligator jaws). A trivial aesthetic
difference. On the other hand, since Florida borders on tropical, I figure they
might be somewhat adapted for that. Therefore, taking evolution & regional
specialization into account, if I lived in an area with cold winters, I’d get a
regular common. If I lived in their range in Florida, I’d say get the Florida
subspecies. Think you’re going to keep it indoors its whole life so it doesn’t
matter? Yeah, sure. Don’t bet your turtle on it. Sizes: Averages slightly
smaller than the regular common snapper.
Alligator Snappers – More prehistoric/monstrous looking than common
snappers; have horny projections on the carapace, a more beak-like muzzle, &
reach a much more massive size; males (larger than females) can clear 200
pounds. They lack the lightning strike of the common snapper but can engorge &
wiggle their tongues, luring fish in. Often rather sedentary, they are massive
beasts with high waste production & supporting one is a major commitment. Like
commons, if there is any way young children or other pets can access
their enclosure, you’ve got disaster potential. If one grabbed a toddler’s hand
(kids like playing in water & teasing animals), the pain & pull might lead the
kid to tumble into the water. People have drowned in bathtubs, you know. Think
about it. Sizes: 15 – 26 in. Males can exceed 200 pounds (150 lbs is
large for a male; heavier weights entail obesity). Females much smaller; reach
around 60 lbs).
Diamondback Terrapin – Medium-to-large brackish water coastline turtles
with a basker design but powerful jaws for crushing mollusks. Can be kept in
fresh water; but some require brackish water (it’s thought captives raised in
fresh water may tolerate it better;
click here for an advanced discussion on DBT’s & fresh vs. brackish water.
Beautiful & popular, but I don’t recommend them as first turtles. The female’s
size is rather large for most indoor tanks. Juveniles can turn on each other, as
can sexually mature males. 7 Subspecies. Sizes (of some sub-species):
Northern: females 6 – 9 in., males 4 – 6.5 in. Ornate: females 6 – 9 in., males
4 – 6.5 in.
I’m taking what I consider the major contenders
& squaring off similar ‘niche’ species to get down to solid recommendations.
Turtle vs. Wood Turtle: There are few real competitors in this weight class
except the box turtle. Of the box turtles, Ornates are problem-prone, we know
less about Desert box, 3-toeds are less ornate than Easterns, Gulf Coast are the
largest & Gulf Coast & Florida box are harder to come by, more expensive & have
greater humidity needs. That leaves the Eastern box as the most suitable for
most. The tortoise that leapt to mind was the small & beautiful Egyptian
tortoise (E.T.) (very expensive, threatened in the wild, not recommended for
high humidity areas, strict grazing herbivore with resultant nutritional
concerns, etc...) Hermans, Russian & Greek tortoises are better beginner
tortoises (cheaper, easier to get, hardier, more humidity-tolerant) than
Egyptians but get larger. The box turtle’s humidity tolerance & omnivorous diet
are a better match for what humans offer. Watching a turtle hunt, catch & eat
prey is enjoyable for some. Wood Turtles are the only
loosely comparable temperate native U.S. turtle. This is seldom debated but a
surprisingly hard-to-call decision. Let’s break this down:
Intelligence/Personality: Both intelligent; the wood turtle gets a lot of
press for being intelligent with an evident personality. The same can be said of
box turtles, although after reading about both I got the impression the wood
turtle has more of a reputation. Phil. Peak
noted box turtles seem shier; I’ve noticed that
with young, but my adult 3-Toed were personable.
should ideally have spacious outdoor enclosures with plenty of land; wood
turtles are active and more aquatic than box & should have a larger, more
elaborate water section as well, adding to enclosure construction & maintenance
issues. Wood turtles need cooler temp.s than most species, hard to provide
outdoors in parts of the U.S.
Phil. noted box
turtles may have trouble adjusting to glass enclosures.
A review of
Turtles of the United States and Canada’s wood turtle section cites
research illustrating wood turtles are often hostile to other wood turtles; this
is particularly evident in male/male interaction, but may occur male/female or
female/female, and toward other species (specifically one of the box turtles).
Few keepers expending the money, effort & space to construct & maintain an
appropriate outdoor turtle enclosure (& if hibernation is not desired, spacious
indoor accommodations as well) will settle for one turtle in it. You might
keep a breeding pair of wood turtles, but I would anticipate keeping no more.
I’ve seen groups of box turtles do well.
Conservation: Despite the
rampant highway slaughter of box turtles, I’d say wood turtles are more
threatened in the wild & unless you plan to breed I think box turtles are a
better choice. Round I: Eastern Box Turtle wins!
RES vs. Cooter: RES begin carnivorous & graduate to predominant
herbivory with meat-based foods a minority player in the diet. Cooters vary
considerably, but on the whole most are more herbivorous than RES. Adult cooters
(especially females) can be much larger than RES. Cooters have a rep. for a
calmer, more laid back personality. Since humans tend to feed high protein
diets, use indoor enclosures & may lack the knowledge/resources to provide a
comprehensively nutritious almost wholly herbivorous diet to adults, I give the
nod to the RES. Round II: RES wins.
RES vs. Mississippi Map: Apples to Oranges comparison because they
are very different turtles. Many male maps are smaller than male RES, more
exotic looking, have a higher degree of carnivory (so might tolerate
human-provided diets better?), & offer more species than sliders. On the other
hand, maps are reputedly more ‘nervous’ (& forum members report this with some
Mississippi’s). RES are reputedly hardier (maps reputedly require pristine water
quality, though common maps may not), more vegetarian as adults (& humans
feed too much protein), are large enough females should have outdoor enclosures,
& in the wild inhabit more diverse water bodies than maps (maps are mainly river
turtles; RES live in anything from a few hundred gallons up), so instinctively
man-made enclosures might be more comfortable. Females get larger in both
species. You can’t sex hatchlings of either. This one could go either way, but I
believe RES are hardier & likely to tolerate the sub-optimal conditions common
to those learning how to care for turtles. This one is hard, but for a first
turtle, Round III: RES wins. (Caveat: a male Texas
map is a fine, very small basker easier to house than a slider, but females
are ~ male slider-sized).
vs. Painted: RES may (big if) be a little hardier, & some people
just love loud green with red head streaks (vivid juvenile coloration may fade
with age). But the painted wins hands down everywhere else. It’s smaller
(southern, midland & Eastern are; Western slightly), an omnivore with more
carnivory than a RES (better match with what humans feed), comes in 4
subspecies, has an even larger natural range than sliders, can be kept indoors
or outdoors (if way up North keeping outdoors pick a more northern occurring
subspecies), & have the same care requirements as a RES. It’s a hands-down win.
Round IV: Painted wins.
Southern Painted vs. Midland Painted: Hard one. Western were excluded
due to large size, & the Eastern since it looks like a southern minus the dorsal
stripe & gets larger (but northern range should make it more capable of outdoor
hibernation in colder climates). The Southern is slightly smaller & has an
ornate red or orange stripe down the center of the carapace. But the plastron is
very plain; this matters in aquariums with side-on viewing. The midland has a
more ornate plastron. The carapace varies from green to black & lacks the front
scute light trim of the Southern. Since the midland has a more northern range it
theoretically might be better adapted to colder winters. Very hard choice, &
can go either way. If you view your turtle mostly from above or crave the
smallest possible, get a Southern. If you side-view through aquarium wall a lot
& don’t mind a slightly larger turtle, or need to keep it outside in colder
climes, get a midland. A male midland & female Southern are of similar size, so
getting an sexed older juvenile midland may serve you well.
Round V: A
Stinkpot vs. Loggerhead: With loggerheads, you either like that funky
big head & polka-dot color scheme or you don’t. Basic black is always
appropriate & the yellow face stripes are ornate on stinkpots, but some are
brown instead of black & the stripes can fade with age.
Phil. Peak’s care sheet on ATP tells us Loggerheads are
diurnal (good), & come from cooler water habitats like large clear springs &
spring runs in Florida. On the other hand, stinkpots adapt to daytime
activity (and some people aren’t home by day much) & come from dirtier habitat.
And who’s more cold resistant; the cool water turtle from Florida or the
turtle with a range extending clear to southern Canada (where hibernation is
necessary)? Since loggerheads are more rare in the pet trade I like to see them
go to seasoned keepers, & since stinkpots have such a huge native range I expect
they’re well-adapted to a variety of conditions. For a versatile small
bottom-walking carnivore it’s hard to beat a stinkpot.
3-Striped Mud vs. Mississippi Mud: Both are dark-colored turtles with
ornate yellow head stripes. The Mississippi (dark brown) is a subspecies of the
Eastern, which has a much larger native range than the 3-striped, & occurs
further North such that you might expect Easterns to be a better match for
outdoor enclosures where hibernation will be required. But the 3-striped
(brownish to black) is considered less shy than the Mississippi & is more
ornate. I see considerable color variation in 3-striped muds, but overall, they
are beautiful. Hatching 3-striped are quite fragile & a drowning risk & should
be started in very shallow water (this may apply to other U.S. mud turtle
hatchlings). Even adult Mississippi’s are a drowning risk; Phil. Peak has
lost healthy Eastern Muds (the Miss. mud is a subspecies) to apparent drowning,
& now keeps Easterns in no more than 6 inches of water. Shallow water doesn’t
dilute waste as well & limits your choice of tank mates (say, to add a painted
turtle later); even adult 3-stripeds should have at least shallow areas in their
tanks. Phil.’s Mud Care Sheets on ATP note both like a significant land area.
Unless outdoor keeping & hibernation are important to you, the 3-Striped has the
edge. Round VII: 3-Striped Mud wins! (But get one with SCL > 1”!)
Stinkpot vs. 3-Striped Mud: 3-Striped muds have more ornate coloring but
should have a land area & shallower water; stinkpots only need a basking
platform & deeper water tolerance lets you mix with painteds, etc… Stinkpots
have a larger native range & extend into the North, so outdoor capability may be
better. Both are fine pets & fragile as hatchlings, but for ease of enclosure
design & compatibility with other species’ enclosure needs, there can only be
one. Round VIII: Stinkpot Wins!
Softshell vs. Smooth: Very similar turtles. The smooth may be slightly
smaller (females more than slightly!), but spinies have a rep. for being
hardier & utilizing a wider variety of habitats in the wild (so might be
more adaptable in captivity). I’m under the impression spinies are a bit more
likely to be aggressive. Smooth reputedly bask on the bank but not emergent
objects (i.e.: logs), whereas spinies use both (in theory could impact
instinctive comfort level in an aquarium). Spinies are much more prevalent in
the U.S. market. Eastern spiny softshells become fairly sexable a little over 2”
SCL, though few know how. Your overall best bet is the male spiny (I
can’t recommend any female North American softshell). Round
IX: Spiny Softshell wins!
Softshell vs. Florida: Although they hail from both rivers and
smaller non-riverine water bodies (more like our enclosures) & are also widely
available, Florida Softshells get too blasted huge. The females are
frighteningly large, & can do severe damage with a bite. You can’t sex the
hatchlings & male Floridas can approach the size of female smooth! The spiny
wins almost by forfeit! Round X: Spiny Softshell wins!
Here are Richard’s Top Picks in the main
categories. Each lucky winner will receive a ringing endorsement for
consideration as your new turtle!
Best Terrestrial Turtle:
Eastern Box Turtle
(captive-bred only). If you
must have a native U.S. terrestrial turtle. Box turtles are rather
challenging to keep properly indoors & once past the hatchling phase ideally
need spacious outdoor accommodations. For a beginner’s turtle, I recommend you
get a water turtle! Otherwise read
ATP’s Article on Choosing Your First Land-Based Turtle & also consider
Herman’s, Russian & Greek (not Golden Greek) tortoises.
Best Semi-Aquatic Basking Turtle: It’s a tie!
Southern Painted Turtle.
Midland Painted Turtle.
Male Spiny Softshell. Note: I don’t consider
softshells appropriate first turtles, but they have enough interest & popularity
that I included this category. I repeat: do not get a softshell for your
Spotted turtle, Mississippi mud, Eastern &
Western Painted & male map turtles. Diamondback terrapins have a strong minority
following. RES & Cooters for ponds. On the exotic side, the Reeves turtle
(small/medium temperate exotic but watch the swimming; reportedly can drown in
deep or cool water) is wide-spread & popular. African-Helmetted Turtles
are hardy mid-sized reasonably affordable & common exotics. The side-neck
turtles appeal to those after ‘something different,’ & there’s a large variety
(some hardier than others).
These are the turtles the vast majority of you
should never own. Very few are those equipped with the space, money, social
support (tolerant spouse/land lord, no small children, etc…), persistence & raw
dedication to maintain one of these monsters over its natural life (and adults
are hard to unload to good homes).
Common (& Florida) snapper.
Most any female softshell.
Massive exotics like giant Asian softshells & the Giant Amazon River
Mata Mata turtles (larger than most are ready for; specialty-class care).
Giant Musk Turtles (think common snapper-sized stinkpot).
Large Tortoises – the Sulcata & Aldabra come to mind. Keepers in Southern
Florida & the American Southwest may be exceptions for some tortoises. Yes, I
know the idea of an adult Galapagos tortoise in your backyard sounds neat. But
problems come up…;)!
Turtle Home’s Sulcata Reality Check survey is highly recommended
There are a lot of unwanted turtles. Release of
captives into the wild is ill-advised; their survival competence isn’t
well-known, they may carry disease from human environments into nature & infect
wild animals, they may disrupt locally genetically specialized subpopulations
(in other words, if you release a RES you bought in Florida into the Ohio River
by Kentucky, your RES may breed with native RES; if the native RES are better
specialized for hibernation, disease-resistance to area pathogens, feeding on
local aquatic plants, etc, your turtle may interfere with that by introducing
traits meant for near-tropical Everglades conditions & weaken the local
population), and outside their native range they may out-compete native animals.
Also, habitat tends to be saturated; there is not ‘always room for
Want to do a turtle, a fellow herper (who
didn’t read my article or he wouldn’t be having this problem!) & a charitable
organization a favor? Check out
Turtle Homes &
Enchanted Turtle Retreat (these organizations are committed to placing
unwanted turtles or those whose needs can’t be met in present locations into
good homes with people rather than dumping them into the wild (causing who knows
what ecological damage) or euthanizing them) &
Turtle Forum’s Adoption Section.
There are a few drawbacks:
Species selection is limited - RES are easy, but getting a Cagle’s map?
Size selection – If you’ve gotta have a recent hatchling baby turtle, you
may not find it here. RES, maybe so. People tend to dump turtles when they get a
So what if you don’t live in the U.S.A.? Maybe
you’re in China & torn between buying a RES or a Kwangtung river turtle. Should
you get the ‘native son’ or must you fear if you need help nobody can help
unless you have one of those foreign exotic turtles from the United States?
I don’t know how much is known about foreign
turtles, or how handily accessible it is. When I want to know about a turtle,
the first place I go is
Austin’s Turtle Page for a look at their care sheet section; then I may hit
Turtle Times (some of those teach more natural history than ‘cook book captive
care’ but knowing the natural history, I have an idea how to set up a tank. If
all else fails, I go to
Turtle Forum (& may check
Kingsnake’s Turtle Forum), go to the search function, enter the species name
I’m interested in, then wade through the listings. If you have a foreign
Kingsnake’s Softshell Forum (don’t miss the Old/Archived section from before
their move; I’ve seen postings about Chitra and others).
But the World Wide Web & the turtle hobby are
becoming less U.S.-centric. See Appendix II for resources on the non-U.S.
This article draws on (and is limited by) my
knowledge, experience, and the amazing wealth of knowledge & experience of
others published online & in books & magazines & shared by fellow turtle
enthusiasts. It grows from my own beliefs, preferences & biases. If you have a
different mindset than mine, your decision may be differ. If you have a lasting
enthrallment with softshell turtles, maybe you’d succeed with a male spiny
softshell & take better care of & have enjoy it. You take better care of what
you love. Maybe you derive great enjoyment from unusual turtles from far away
lands; you certainly won’t impress fellow enthusiasts with your RES or painted
turtle. And some people love tortoises & regard them as intelligent & sociable
beyond the aquatic species. Maybe you’re proud of your box turtle’s aquarium
setup & resent my dissing the practice. All I can say is that he who writes the
article gets to put his philosophy into it. I figure when you’re ready to move
beyond my recommendations you won’t be using this article to pick your turtle.
Until then, I hope it serves you well. Good luck!
P.S.: Before you buy anything, read a lot on that
species, think long and hard, plan for the future and have the setup waiting
when it arrives. You can start on that care education at
Austin’s Turtle Page &
Appendix I: Key References (Recommended for your
personal library, too).
Turtles of the United States and Canada (Hardcover)
Turtles of the United States and Canada
depicting the natural history of our native turtles. Divided into section by
species, with sections broken down into Recognition, Karyotype, Fossil Record,
Distribution, Geographic Variation, Confusing Species, Habitat, Behavior,
Reproduction, Growth & Longevity, Food Habits, Predators & Defense, Populations,
and Remarks. It surveys the 56 species of the U.S. & Canada.
study information on such matters as stomach contents, how long the turtle can
survive underwater, chromosome number, homing ability if removed from original
site and activity cycle by time of day and year. If you want to ‘know’ your
turtle from his wild origins, this is the book.
Practical Encyclopedia of Keeping and Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles
(Softcover) by A. C. Highfield.
The title is
definitive. If you want an ‘owners guide’ to turtles, buy it. Highfield speaks
from extensive husbandry experience with a large variety of both tortoises and
turtles. His section on nutrition includes a breakdown by nutrient of symptoms
of deficiency & how to prevent it. Many color photo.s of disease conditions.
Many species profiles giving an overall synopsis and often such tidbits as
incubation info. and what incubation temp.s produce males or females. Both
native and exotic turtles are discussed. If you only buy one of my recommended
references, make it this one.
Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles
(soft cover) by Russ Gurley. 301 Pages.
Living Art Publishing. 2003.
turtles & aquatics but not tortoises. Are more recent title directly competing
with Highfield’s Practical Encyclopedia (to me there’s no competition; get
The Amphibians and Reptiles of Arkansas
– Stanley E. Trauth, Henry W. Robison and Michael V. Plummer. University of
© 2004. (Billed as the product
of 15 years of work by top herpetologists, features over 136 species &
Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern and Central
North America (Softcover)
by Roger Conant,Joseph T.
Collins,Joseph T. Collins,Isabelle Hunt Conant (Illustrator).
There are other
field guides out there; I use this one, the gold standard in the category. The
focus is on field identification & basic facts (size, range, etc…). It includes
a thorough breakdown of the species with concise discussion & range maps. Very
useful for learning what species live in your area. I haven’t used the other
field guides such as Audobon’s so I can’t give a definitive ‘best of class’
recommendation. I do like this book, though.
Keep in mind this book
gives size averages based on wild animals. Many individuals will be larger &
your well-fed warmed-all-year captive may well exceed the usual range.
Appendix II: Where to Get a Turtle:
United States – for a review of the market & listing of some
reputable vendors, check out our ATP Article on
Where to Get a Turtle.
Canada – We’ve got
the Canadian Connection on Turtle Forum to help Canadian members network to
Other Countries – for now we’re collecting resources in our
Advanced Herpers’ forum section
thread on the International Turtle Market, focused on helping people find
Wild-caughts – if you go this route read our
ATP Policy on Wild-Caught Turtles. It’ll be helpful when you discuss them on
Food Markets – Perhaps the most bitterly debated source of turtles
today; ‘saving’ one or two by profiting the industry that’s killing them.
China-Towns are often discussed on the forum in this context. For anyone
interested, the Pro/Con China-town Turtle Purchase Issue has been hotly debated
in the following threads:
the original China Town Turtle Thread. A major issue in the opening post was
that not only did the person go looking for China Town turtles, but later
regretted not going with more money, & planned to go back with 2 more people
(presumably to 'rescue' more).
a follow-up thread where someone 'somehow acquired' one this way & the
debate raged on.
And this later thread again stirred the debate.
Know the issues. Make your own informed decisions.
Appendix III: Care Sheet Resources:
Note: Always read a
few sources on a given species; seldom does any one have everything you’ll need
& want to know, & some points are controversial & you can benefit from hearing
more than one perspective.
Austin’s Turtle Page:
General Turtle Care.
David T. Kirkpatrick’s Articles.
You may want to
Melissa Kaplan’s Turtle/Tortoise Info. Listings.
She didn’t write
all these, & I just skimmed some, but it looks like a top-notch collection &
this lady is well-respected.