Natural History

Red-eared Sliders (Chrysemys scripta) are found throughout the United States east of the Rockies. The subspecies C. s. elegans is the one most often sold in pet stores here and abroad. These turtles are strong swimmers but they spend much of the warmer hours of the day hauled out on logs or rocks basking in the sun. All of the sliders are omnivores, eating both animal protein and vegetable/plant matter..

It is illegal in the U.S. for pet stores to sell turtles less than four inches in length. The ones sold legally will be at least four inches long from the neck end of the carapace (top shell) to the tail end of the carapace. If male, it will be somewhere between 2-4 years old and already sexually mature. Wild females reach maturity later, between 5-7 years, and will then be over 5 inches in length; in captivity, females may reach maturity at about 3 1/2 years. You will be able to tell male from females: males are smaller than females in overall body size but have longer tails.

Habitat

All Sliders need both a warm, dry area and a large pool of warm water. The water must be kept clean; rotting bits of food mixed with feces will combine to make an unhealthful habitat and a sick turtle. Turtles are messy eaters and defecate in their water, so cleaning will be an almost daily routine. Water and tank should be kept heated with commercial heating devices.

Tank: Start with at least a 20 gallon aquarium. If you are not interested in actually watching your turtle swimming around, you can use an large opaque plastic container such as a large plastic storage box bottom, concrete mixing bin or deep kitty litter pan. You can use clean aquarium rock and gravel to build a slope up from the wet end (the pool) to the dry end (the land). You can silicone together pieces of plexiglass to make a moveable platform onto which your turtle can crawl onto to rest. Floating cork rafts are another alternative. Rough rocks must not be used as they can scratch turtle shells which allows bacterial and fungal infections to get started and penetrate into the turtle’s body.

Water: The water must be as deep as your turtle is long. If your turtle’s carapace (the top shell) is 5 1/2 inches long, your pool must be at least 5 1/2 inches deep. This will enable your turtle to swim around naturally. This also means that you will have to continue to increase the water area as your turtle grows.

Proper water filtering systems are necessary to keep the water fairly fresh between your weekly changes. If you have a powerful filter system and you feed your turtle in another tank, you may be able to get away with replacing 25-50% of the water each week for two or three weeks, emptying and cleaning out the tank thoroughly every third or fourth week. Remember to replace the water with warm water. Talk to your aquarium shop about the following types of filters that are suitable for Red-Eared Sliders: canister, undergravel, sponge, and power filters. You will also need some type of automated siphon for the partial changes of water between the overall heavy-duty changes and cleaning.

The water temperature must be maintained between 75-86 degrees F. If you buy a submersible pre-calibrated heater, test it first and make sure the water is the proper temperature before you put your turtle in the water. Too cold and it won’t eat; too hot and you’ll cook it. Buy an aquarium thermometer and monitor the temperature regularly.

Temperature: If the room the turtle is being kept in is always over 75oF, then you will only need to heat up a basking area. If it is cooler, then an undertank ceramic heater will be needed to ensure a constant temperature between 75 and 80. Create a basking area using an incandescent light or spot light, allow the area closest to the light to reach 85-88oF. Make sure there is absolutely no way for the light to fall into the water or for the turtle to come into direct contact with the light bulb. Be aware that the light will heat up the water to a certain degree so be sure to monitor the water temperature. Young sliders, and any sick turtle, should be kept warmer (water temperatures between 82-85oF) than the average healthy adult. Sustained low temperatures (between 65-72 degrees) will cause turtles to stop feeding and respiratory infections may result.

Lighting: Turtles need ultraviolet light to help them absorb and use calcium properly. This wavelength of light can only be provided by special “full spectrum” (both uv-a and uv-b) lights available at reptile pet stores. The lights should be no more than 18 inches away from the turtle and should be changed every 6 months. On sunny days when the outside temperatures are warm, you should allow your turtle to bask in the sun for 2-3 hours 2-3 times per week. Either move your turtle tank outside, or set up a tub with basking and swimming areas.

Electric Shock Hazard: When using electric filters, water heaters and lamps in and around the tank of water all electrical cords should be connected to a ground-fault interrupter which shuts off the current if anything happens to protect you and the turtle. Buy one at your local hardware store. Do not use bulbs with higher wattage than your light fixture is rated for (no 100 watt bulbs in 60 watt fixtures). Turtles will investigate and knock things about; secure your water heater behind an immovable wall or partition – turtle-proof it.

Diet

To ensure proper nutrition, strong growth and a healthy long-lived turtle, feed a varied diet to both adults and juveniles. Younger turtles need up to 40% of their food from protein sources; adult turtles feed more heavily on vegetation. Juveniles must be fed every day; adults can be fed once every two to three days. Do not feed more than they can eat; the excess food will go to waste and foul the water. Feed a combination of the following foods:

Commercial diets (No more than 25% of total diet): Trout Chow, commercial floating fish, reptile or turtle food (pellets, sticks or tablets). The pellets and sticks have the advantage of being formulated specifically for reptiles and don’t decompose in the water as fast as other foods.
Animal Protein (No more than 25% of total diet). Live feeder fish–do not feed frozen fish; they are deficient in thiamine

Earthworms–buy them from a reptile or aquarium store; do not feed the ones from your yard as they may contain bacteria, parasites and pesticides against which your turtle has no immunity.

Finely chopped raw lean beef, beef heart and cooked chicken; raw chicken is too often riddled with salmonella.

Dog kibble can be offered occasionally–dog and cat foods tend to be too high in fat and additives and so should not be used as the main source of protein.

Plant Matter (50% or more of total diet). Leaves of dark leafy greens such as collard, mustard and dandelion greens.

Carrots (and carrot tops) shredded, squash and green beans.

Fruit can be offered raw; shred hard fruits like apples and melons, chopping soft fruits such as berries. To help keep their beak in trim, let them gnaw on pieces of cantaloupe with the (well washed) rind still attached.

Vitamin Supplements added twice a week. Use a good reptile or turtle multi-vitamin. Turtles must also be supplied with additional calcium; they often enjoy taking bites out of calcium blocks and gnawing on cuttlebone, so always have some available to them.

Health

Most turtles are likely suffering from protozoan and bacterial infections when purchased, including Salmonella which is easily transmitted to young children. Therfore, you should always wash your hands with warm soapy water after handling the turtle and wear rubber gloves when cleaning the tank. In addition, it is important to bring a fresh specimen of stool into the veterinarian for culture and parasite testing as soon as your pet defecates. If parasites are detected, they can then be appropriately treated.
Watch your turtle for any signs of illness: cloudy, closed or swollen eyes; swollen cheeks; open mouth breathing; bubbly mucous around the nose or mouth; runny stools; loss of appetite; listlessness; spots appearing on plastron (bottom shell), carapace or body; soft shell or excessive shedding Always take a sick turtle to a reptile veterinarian.

Acclimation and Handling

After bringing home and placing your turtle in its already-established tank, let it get used to its new surroundings for several days. It may spend the first couple of days closed tight in its shell, or may quickly withdraw when it sees you looming overhead or approaching the enclosure.During this time, put fresh food out every day and make sure the water stays warm and clean. After a while, the healthier turtle will begin to explore its surroundings, and may begin to watch the goings-on around it. When you pick up the turtle, support its body with both hands. Turtles feel more secure when they can feel something beneath their feet; “swimming” in air is stressful to them. Let them feel your hands or fingers beneath their feet, not just their plastron (bottom shell). A two-handed carry will also help ensure that they will not suffer a potentially crippling–or fatal–fall.

Generally speaking, turtles are not appropriate pets for young children. The care and feeding is more complicated than is generally thought, and the daily maintenance of the enclosure, enclosure apparatus and feeding soon gets boring for most kids. When obtained for a child, the parent must acknowledge and accept primary responsibility for the care of the turtle and routinely check it regularly for any signs or symptoms of illness.

Places to Go, Things to Do and See

Visit your local zoo to see some of the world’s biggest turtles and tortoises.

Some books to read about turtles and turtle care include:

  • Carroll, David M. The Year of the Turtle: A natural history. 1991. Camden House publishing.
  • De Vosjoli, Philippe. The General Care and Maintenance of Red-Eared Sliders. 1992. Advanced Vivarium Systems, Inc.
  • Obst, Fritz, et al. The Completely Illustrated Atlas of Reptiles and Amphibians for the Terrarium. 1988. TFH Publishing, Inc.