North American Soft Shelled Turtle

Shop Image taken on 29 January 2005

Florida Soft-shell Turtles look like big leathery pancakes.   They are brownish-green or tan with blotches on their skin.  Their shells are covered with skin, and are soft around the edges.  Their noses are long and round.   When they swim, they stay underwater and stick their nose up to breathe, like a snorkel.  Their feet are webbed and their necks are very long.  They can stick their long neck out and bite you if you’re not careful!  The females are much bigger than the males.  Females can get up to 24 inches long.  Males can only grow to 12 inches.

Both female and male soft-shell turtles eat crayfish, snails, frogs, fish, and even baby ducks.  They spend most of their time in the waters of lakes, ponds, and ditches.  This drawing shows you the shape of a soft-shelled turtle’s shell.  It does not go all the way to the edge of his pancake shape.  That’s why his shell seems so soft. Captive adults over 8 inches diameter can be fed low protein, low fat dog food and all chicken must be cooked.

Soft shells are very shy around humans, and often will not come out much when any are around. Food intake must be monitored by looking to see that food offered disappears and that faeces appear regularly. When kept in a home they should be in a low traffic, low noise area. Like most aquatic turtles, soft shells must be able to haul themselves out of the water onto a warm and dry basking area. Basking temperatures of 85 F (warmer for the Florida soft shells) are required during the day. Water temperatures can range from 70-80 degrees. Basking heat should be provided by an overhead incandescent light.

All turtle enclosures should be cleaned weekly by draining out 100% of the water, partially refilling and scrubbing the decorations and sides, draining again and refilling. Always thoroughly wash hands and cleaning utensils afterwards.


Red Eared/Painted  Terrapin Care


Some text may classify these in genus Trachemys or Pseudemys and many subspecies or regional color variations exist.

Closely related aquatic turtles, both growing up to 16" in shell length although typical adults are 10" - 12". The shell of the Red Ear Slider is primarily a medium to dark green with mosaic stripes or highlights of yellow and black. The head and body are similarly colored, while the plastron or underbelly is primarily yellow with black markings. Patterns and markings are highly variable among individuals. The most identifiable feature and basis for its common name is a pair of red stripes on either side of the head just behind the eyes. The Painted Turtle is similar looking but darker and less ornate and lacking the red ear stripes. To compensate for having a much drabber shell, the body has red stripes and highlights especially on the legs. Juveniles of both species tend to be brighter with individuals becoming darker and colors faded with age. Sex can be readily determined on individuals over 6" in length as males develop elongated front claws which can grow longer than the digits themselves. Many geographical subspecies and color variants exist within this group of turtles, so absolute identification may require a pictorial guide, but fortunately care is essentially the same for all varieties.

Captive Breeding Status:
Both species have been bred in captivity. However, in the United States it is illegal to sell turtles under a 4" shell length except for scientific or educational purposes due to a 1970's salmonella prevention law, so very few of the individuals offered for sale are captive bred as the economics to raise these is not competitive with the supply of wild caught specimens. In some southern states, most notably Louisiana, both of these species are farmed by the millions for sale in countries outside of the US for pets and human food consumption.

Native Range/Habitat:
Both of these species and their many relatives are native to North America, especially the MidWest region, Mississippi River basin, and the SouthEast United States. Although habitat encroachment by humans has reduced some regional populations, they are still frequent residents of most permanent lakes, rivers and streams. While populations cross and can be mixed in the same water body, Painted turtles are more common in the northern portion of the range with Sliders becoming more popular in the southern states. They are both hibernating species taking refuge when temperatures fall below 60ºF.

Both species in nature are primary carnivores feeding off of worms, insects, snails, small fish, and crayfish. They are very opportunistic however, and will also consume carrion and some vegetation. In captivity, they will readily feed on commercial diets such as Tetra ReptoMin along with occasional treats of earthworms, insects or feeder/bait fish. Easier, cheaper and safer than live food treats are Tetra's line of ReptoTreat foods including sun-dried whole Gammarus shrimps, Delica Bloodworms, and krill-enriched Suprema food sticks. Hamburger, hotdogs and other human foods should be avoided as they are typically high in fat and poorly digested. One key note to their feeding - both species can only swallow underwater as is needed to "wash" the food down the throat. They may occasionally take food on dry land, but immediately retreat to the water to consume it. It is therefore very important that they be kept in water deep enough to completely submerge themselves.

Although Red Ear and Painted turtles are commonly referred to as "aquatic" a better term would be basking or semi-aquatic as these turtles spend much of their time out of the water basking in the sun. In captivity they will require a set up that allows them the same. The most common housing consists of a traditional aquarium, although some unique houses have been built out of wading pools, water troughs, old bathtubs or any other container capable of holding water. The size of the housing should not be smaller than 30" x 12" at the base in order to create adequate land and water sections. The water section should be at least 4" deep. For hygiene it is highly recommended to use a filter and various options exist, but since turtles create a fairly high waste load, a power filter is recommended over under gravel or sponge type units. The easiest to service and maintain is a power filter that hangs on the side of the aquarium, as the cartridges can be exchanged easily and without dismantling the entire unit. A submersible aquarium heater is also recommended. To prevent or minimize damage potential to a glass tube heater, a sleeve of slotted plastic tubing can be fitted over the heater body - it is important though to maintain water flow and thermal venting. Wire mesh can also be used. A dry or basking area needs to be provided which will allow the turtle to completely exit the water. The easiest solution is a natural rock pile (slate works very well) although crevices in the rock allow detritus to accumulate and this will require periodic cleaning. A natural log piece also works, but will become saturated and sink over time and bark will soften and clog filters if not removed prior to usage. Probably the best option is a ceramic or poly-resin ornament designed for aquarium or terrarium usage. They are easy to clean and are nearly indestructible. Depending on the height of the housing walls a lid or screen may not be necessary are turtles are very poor climbers, but these devices also serve to keep other pets out of the cage and often have built in lighting. Turtles require full spectrum lighting with UV-B wavelengths to properly utilize calcium a critical element to proper shell and bone development. Fluorescent bulbs for this use are available in many sizes and different fixtures at your local pet shop. All turtle enclosures should be cleaned weekly by draining out 100% of the water, partially refilling and scrubbing the decorations and sides, draining again and refilling. Always thoroughly wash hands and cleaning utensils afterwards.

General Comments:

Both Painted Turtles and Red Ear Sliders are easy to care for pets. In some climates they can be kept outdoors in the summer but caution needs to be exercised that shade is available especially in glass enclosures. Although age of wild caught specimens can not be readily determined, it is not unusual for captive specimens to live over 10 yrs.