Semi-Aquatic Turtle Getting Started Guide
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Aquarium Tanks & Stands
When selecting an aquarium tank size to get, everyone will always say the bigger the better. Now, you might be thinking this is just due to the fact that you can have more fish, invertebrates, and it'll become a showpiece in your house or room. Ironically the bigger you go the easier it is to maintain a healthy aquarium since you will have to do fewer water changes and as a new person to the hobby, you will have more room to slack on certain aspects. You will want at least 10 gallons of water for every 1 inch in length of the shell (from the head to tail) in size, as this allows for enough room for them to swim, sleep, or explore throughout the day. We also recommend that you have the water depth being roughly double (2x) the length of the turtle's shell and the aquarium's width being three times (3x) the length of the turtle's shell to allow for adequate room for the turtle to roam around. Going bigger is always better (for example, you could start with a 40 gallon breeder and wait until the turtle's shell is over 4 inches in length before having to upgrade), however, staying smaller will put extreme stress on the turtle and may create situations where it cannot swim or turn in the tank at all.
Many "all-in-one" kits might seem like the perfect choice when trying to find a reasonable price on an aquarium set since most contain almost everything that is needed to get an aquarium going quickly. Sadly, a lot of the all-in-one kits will have some sort of flaw, whether it be a highly overpowered filter, an underrated heater, or in rare cases a lighting system that is under quality and very poor. If done correctly, you can always buy the proper equipment without ever needing to upgrade for around the same price (if not a little more) than these all-in-one kits. Additionally, maybe all-in-one kits at stores tend to either be only 20 or 40 gallon tanks, which will last a few years but will require an upgrade to something larger to hold a majority of commonly sold semi-aquatic turtles.
After you pick out your tank size, now comes the part of figuring out if you want to buy a stand manufacturer, make your own stand, or use a piece of furniture as a stand. Before you try one of these, please be aware of how heavy water truly is (and the tank will be even heavier since you will have a substrate, decorations, filter, heater attached, and more to weigh it all down). As an example, 10 gallons (75.7 liters) aquarium fully setup can weigh around 100 pounds (45.7 kilograms) and some setups may not support the whole aquarium evenly creating stress on pieces of glass or joints unequally.
Essential Aquarium Equipment
Now that you have selected your aquarium tank and a stand, we move on to the more essential equipment that will act as the life support system for your inhabitants. Making sure to correctly get the right equipment the first time is vital since in some cases getting the wrong (under-powered or worse overpowered) items can lead to high death rates or higher maintenance than what would be normally required.
There are tons of different types of filters, all that make promises to do various stages of chemical, biological, and/or mechanical filtration with various types of filter media. Many people think that a filter does the same thing as another type, and while they are somewhat correct they are not fully. You have to remember that fish normally live in an open environment in which their waste is diluted very quickly (if not right away), and by keeping them in an aquarium we are taking that open ecosystem and creating a closed environment. Turning the toxins at were discussed in The Nitrogen Cycle and breaking them down so that they do not harm the inhabitants while also keeping the water clean of any debris, excess food, or various materials as well. When selecting a filter you want to get one that has double the filtration capacity as the aquarium size (in the example we want a filter rated for 40 gallons if we have a 20 gallons tank). We are going to break down the various categories of filters into their main groups to explain how they work, what they look like, and a rough price estimate on them.
One major thing that many shops, people, and booklets get wrong is when to replace the filter media. Many manufacturers will state that you need to replace all of the media in a given time frame however, this is very dangerous and harmful to your aquarium. The only time that you should replace any media is when it is falling apart into pieces otherwise if you need to clean it only do so with the aquarium's water and make sure to limit the time it is left out in the air to as little as possible. If required to change any media, leave the old media inside with the new media so that all of the beneficial bacteria can migrate from the old to the new. If you do not do this or change all of the media at once you will have to repeat cycling your aquarium all over again, which depending on stocking levels can be very dangerous and time-consuming and lead to man deaths.
Internal Filters: A filter that is fully submerged in the aquarium's water that inside contains various types of filter media, most commonly it will contain a sponge, a carbon pad/beads, and also will contain bio-beads where the beneficial bacteria live. The intake tube can be in various locations per product, and it sucks all of the debris instead where it is slowly broken down by the beneficial bacteria and sometimes by the propeller that sucks the water in. The output can also be in various locations per product however, normally allows for a type of spray bar to be added. These types of filters allow for chemical, biological, and mechanical (however this all depends on the product exactly) and are a little more than hang-on-back filters as they take up more space inside of the aquarium as they are designed to be submerged at all times. These require some forms of maintenance over time if the propeller starts to slow down, the media gets too dirty, the intake gets clogged, or other causes.
Hang-on-Back (HOB) Filters: A filter that is placed outside of the aquarium which hangs on the glass with an intake tube that is placed inside of the water and the output is a small downslope that slides (or depending on the water level can be a waterfall) into the water column. These filters contain various types of filter media, most commonly they will contain a sponge, a carbon pad/beads, and also will contain bio-beads where the beneficial bacteria live. These types of filters allow for chemical, biological, and mechanical (however this all depends on the product exactly) and are the most common types of filters that you will see various levels of aquarium keepers have. These require some forms of maintenance over time if the propeller starts to slow down, the media gets too dirty, or other causes.
Canister Filters: A filter that is normally placed inside of the aquarium stand, in which two tubes (one of the intake and the other for the output) are connected to their respective plastic parts that are suctioned inside of the aquarium's water. Inside contains various types of filter media, most commonly it will contain one to three types of different consistency-based sponges, a carbon pad/beads, and also will contain bio-beads where the beneficial bacteria live. These types of filters allow for chemical, biological, and mechanical and are the most powerful, maintenance-free (most require any changes of filter media for years), and quietest filters on the market. Sadly these are also the most expensive type of filter due to their design, and how much water they clean through daily.
Sumps: A sump requires that there are either drilled holes inside of the tank, or an overflow box at the top that allows for water to be delivered to the sump. This normally go through some type of filter sock to trap bigger particles, some filter media, and then through various chambers that tend to include (but not required to); an aeration method to add oxygen to the water, a protein skimmer, a refugium, an automatic water filler, heaters/chiller input/output to hide it from the display aspect of the tank, and various types of probes for detecting aspects that need to be watched (salinity, pH, etc.). Sumps are normally sized to match their aquarium to be most effective, while also having the required chambers to allow for the best ways to maintain the tank with everything being out of sight from those who are viewing the aquarium above.
There are many different types of substrate to choose from that can be used. Below we will go over all of the choices, and what substrate is the best for your specific needs including a list of positive and negative aspects. Do not use gravel as this will led to impaction, where the turtle may accidentally eat a piece and it will get stuck in their digestive tract. This does and often is fatal if not taken to a vet immediately - so out of caution, we do not recommend using any gravel or substrate that is able to fit into their mouth and be swallowed (sand is fine as it's so small it can pass through them without impaction).
Sand Based: Having a sand substrate is one of the most natural-looking substrates out there since it allows for you to be mimicking the ocean but instead of it being saltwater you have freshwater. There are many different colors of sand that you can buy now, instead of just the natural-looking tan there is pink, blue, green, red, purple, black, white, gray, and almost any other color combination that you can think of. Depending on what types of fish and invertebrates you are keeping, sand might actually become a requirement to have as your substrate. When first using sand and filling up your aquarium, you must do so very slowly and over a plate (or some other covering to make sure that you are not just pouring it on the sand directly). The downside to this is that you will end up with a very cloudy water column, due to the fine grains of sand you must not turn on any filters since you will risk damaging the propellers, any type of debris can be seen laying on the sand, it's hard to clean since any movement will create another small cloud of sand for a few minutes to hours, and lastly the sand will need to be mixed (or poked) to release any buildup of trapped gases.
Pebble/River Rock Based: Having a pebble/river rock-based substrate would be the only other substrate that you can consider, as it is the gravel of the turtle world. It also provides a more natural look since not many fish tanks have pebbles/river rock due to food becoming trapped between and rioting, although with a turtle they can easy extend their neck and grab food that may not be reachable otherwise. Make sure that any of the rock pieces are not smaller than the turtle's head/mouth, since it will lead to impaction if swallowed accidentally when feeding. We also recommend that you gently place the river rocks/pebbles before adding water in (since dropping them from the bag directly as one can do with gravel/sand will lead to the bottom of the aquarium's glass cracking).
In many cases, the standard lighting fixture that comes with your aquarium will do just fine for viewing the inhabitants. If your aquarium did not come with a lighting fixture then there are many to choose from based on your needs. The most common ones being sold currently are LED lights, in which the LEDs last almost a lifetime and are very bright. Other fixtures include higher light ratings which will provide the most benefit if you plan on growing any corals inside of your aquarium. With any type of light, we would suggest that you make sure that you do not leave it on for more than 10 hours a day at a time, as having it on any longer will increase the chances of algae growing exponentially.
Some lighting fixtures come with moonlight, or a very dim blue light to be used during the night. Sadly, like all animals in this world, they require a night cycle of pure darkness. Leaving the lights on and never turning them off can do serious damage to your turtle, including them being very sluggish all of the time, never truly eating when you place food inside of the aquarium, and worse it can lead to death. If you do wish to use the moonlight feature, we would suggest turning it on about an hour before you turn on the main lights in the morning and then leaving them on for an hour after you turn off the main lights at night.
Heaters & Thermometers
Having an adjustable heater is something that is highly recommended since you can maintain the temperature throughout the whole aquarium by moving the switch from one degree to another. This is due to the fact that many preset heaters, or always on heaters do not turn off when they reach a specific temperature (unlike adjustable ones) and you can literally cook your inhabitants to death. Since there are many different manufacturers, we suggest that you read the product's back packaging in order to know the specific watts you need for your aquarium size.
Thermometers are another highly important piece of this puzzle, as although you may have an adjustable heater in most cases they are off anywhere between 0-5 degrees. Since this is a big range, making sure that you have a liquid-based thermometer is very important as the strip-based ones are very inaccurate and cannot show what the specific temperature is (only the range it is in).
Basking Areas (UVA/B & Heat Light Requirement)
Since many turtles are not fully aquatic, they do require a place where they can fully come out of the water and dry off. Many create this using driftwood, rocks, or even by creating a small gradient to slowly have a natural shore and piece of dry land. Otherwise, you can buy a platform that will sit just outside of the water (held on by the glass via suction cups or attached to the bottom of the tank) that has a small ramp to allow them to go up it. You must also place the UVB and heat lamps there so that the turtle can get all of its requirements in one spot as it would if it walked outside of the water in nature.
Heat Lamp: Just like heating the water itself, we must make sure that we have a heating lamp that is warmer than the water. Generally speaking, the hottest part of the basking zone should be somewhere around 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 Celsius) with a gradient that allows for the turtle to move to spots that are cooler or warmer on the basking platform. When shopping for heat lamps, you’ll find different wattage ratings. Read the specifications about each bulb to figure out which one will provide the right temperature for the turtle species you have. We always recommend getting a heat lamp that is splash-proof, as even with the distance that it has from the basking platform, there is always a risk that a splash could hit the lamp (which without it being splash-proof, will shatter the bulb onto the basking platform).
UVA/B: UVB lights are a requirement for vitamin D3 production by the turtle, due to the lack of natural sunlight which promotes this. It is vital for healthy bone and shell growth and without it, your turtle can’t process calcium and other key nutrients. As a result, it can develop metabolic bone disease which is a painful and potentially fatal disorder. Please make sure that you do not use glass lids between the UVB light and the turtle itself, since UVB cannot penetrate glass (and a reason why mesh lids or no lids are common). UVA lights allow for the proper ray spectrum to promote a healthy appetite when the turtle is exposed to them. Mostly all UV bulbs are combo bulbs that have both UVA/B rays.
Protein skimmers act as the natural version of waves in a lake or river, by creating movement in the water surface such that any protein oils left on the surface will be sucked into them and dissolved/filtered out. This prevents many tanks from starting to smell, and can allow for you to keep fish or invertebrates in the aquarium as a protein buildup on the surface will prevent the gas exchange from happening correctly (which will starve them of oxygen they require). Many use a protein skimmer as a standalone piece of equipment in the waterline, in a sump, or as a hang on the back unit dependent on the tank size and requirements.
Over time the constant motion that a protein skimmer creates will wear down over time, and it's not uncommon to have to replace some parts when you do maintenance on the tank over months to years to allow for the protein skimmer to run at it's optimal performance levels.
Decorations & Plants
Decorating your aquarium can be one of the most creative, and also challenging parts as there are endless ways to do it. Many people use plastic or acrylic aquarium safe objects, rocks, driftwood, and almost anything that will not be harmful to any inhabitants. When you first select something to place inside of your aquarium, make sure that you rinse it over hot water to remove any dirt or dust that might have collected on it. Then, peel off the sticker on the bottom (if there is one) and place it inside of your aquarium. Sometimes you will see algae growth on these decorations, or a weird type of fungus-like growth on them. Sadly this is very common, and in most cases is completely harmless and will go away on its own without requiring any effort from the aquarium owner. Dealing with driftwood and rocks can be slightly different, mostly driftwood will be the biggest issue people have.
Most pieces that are exposed to the air for a long period of time will not sink right away, regardless of the size of their weight. It can take anywhere from a few hours to months before it will sink on its own. Another issue that people have is that driftwood will release something called tannins, a natural yellow dye that is completely harmless but will make your water appear light to dark tea color. A common way to avoid this would be to boil the piece of driftwood in a large pot for a few hours, making sure to not let any water boil over. This will dramatically reduce the tannins release making sure that your water will stay crystal clear for years to come.
When it comes to fake plants or live ones, we do not recommend the use of plastic or silk plants as the turtle may attempt to eat them, which can result in impaction from it not degrading as a live plant would in their digestive system. If you are looking into keeping live plants, the most important thing is to make sure that you have the correct lighting for your plant's requirements, as having incorrect lighting will slowly make the plant die or it will stunt its growth. For further information about care with live aquarium plants, please read the species profiles for each type of plants you want as it goes over in great detail what plants need, how to grow them successfully, and also beginner plants that require little to no care.
Food & Feeding
Your turtle’s exact diet will depend on what species it is, and whether it is a herbivore, or omnivore. We have listed below the common diets and what to avoid when feeding them food. For young turtles, we recommend that you feed them daily, however as they mature you only need to fed an adult turtle every other day. Similarly, young turtles will require a higher protein intake, and once they mature they will require less protein and want more vegetable/fruit matter. If a turtle is fed a diet that is too rich in protein, their shell will become taller than wider and will result in a pyramid like form. If this is the case, start feeding less protein and over time their shell should go back down to a healthy curved shape.
All turtles do need to eat vegetables and/or fruits in their daily diet - but some of them are very toxic to the turtle dependent on their specific species. Listed below are vegetables and fruits that are known to be safe for all turtle species.
Moderate Use; Green Leaf Lettuce, Turnip Greens, Dandelion Greens, Red Leaf Lettuce, Mustard Greens, Carrots, Squash
Sparingly Use; Berries, Banana, Skinless Apples, Grapes
Avoid; Kale, Spinach
Fish and Insects: Omnivorous turtles should be given protein-rich food like crickets or small fish. You can also purchase freeze-dried insects, though it’s best to give them fresh food whenever possible. Goldfish and rosy red minnows should not be fed to any turtle at any time. They contain an enzyme called thiaminase that blocks thiamine absorption, which over time will lead to a deficiency that can end up causing full paralysis, affect digestion, cause bone deformities, and possibly become fatal to your turtle. Also, avoid any fish and insects that have an armor-like coating (ex; Plecostomus) as they can damage the turtle's mouth or digestive system if hard pieces get lodged.
Commercial Pellets: Pellets that you can find at the pet store can be a highly nutritious part of your turtle’s diet. Check the label and select pellet food that contains a high percentage of protein (around 40% is good) and a low percentage of fat (shoot for less than 8%).
Over time, you may notice that they do require more live foods compared to their commercial counterparts, so it may take time (if possible as some are stubborn enough) to make the switch from live food to commercial-based foods. Always ask the breeder or point of purchase what types of foods they are feeding them, since you may want to either mimic these food types and will be able to know if they are mostly eating live foods.