Freshwater Turtles as Pets

What turtles are available as pets?

There are two kinds of native freshwater turtles available for aquariums in South Australia. The Murray River shortneck (Emydura macquarii, seen at top left) and the Eastern longneck (Chelodina longicolis below right). Both of these species are presently being bred in captivity in South Australia. Turtles are not as easily accessible in other states (see do I need a permit), and there are whole other species available internationally – this FAQ only covers the two species described above, however, care of other related species is comparable.

Both of these species need basically the same care, but the long-neck version is a touch more fragile, particularly while tiny. Long necks may be kinder and develop somewhat slower than short necks, but there are no other notable distinctions between the two.

Are they turtles or tortoises?

For many years, there has been controversy on this topic, but most authorities, zoos, and herpetologists now identify them as freshwater turtles rather than tortoises. A turtle has flippers and lives in the ocean, emerging only to lay eggs, but a tortoise has feet and lives on land, only sometimes going into the water. Freshwater turtles have webbed feet (except for the pignosed turtle, which has flippers) and are practically entirely aquatic, hence it makes more sense to call them turtles rather than tortoises.

When are they available?

Both kinds of turtles breed from late spring to July, with eggs hatching in early to midsummer. Baby turtles are therefore accessible from late December or early January until April or May when stocks begin to run short. They may still be accessible in June and July in strong breeding years when there are numerous newborns, but this should not be counted on. Late-hatching turtles may become available later in the year.

Adult and semi-adult turtles are infrequently available, mainly because persons who purchased them as infants are unable to care for them. If you want to get a bigger turtle, go to your local pet or aquarium shop. Alternatively, place an ad in the local paper inviting anybody interested in purchasing a bigger turtle to contact you personally.

Are they hard to look after?

Turtles are fairly simple to care for if a turtle tank is correctly set up and appropriate feed is given. They are prone to a few ailments, which are uncommon if the turtle is properly cared for.

Do I need a permit?

Freshwater turtle regulations differ from state to state, so check with your local authorities. Permission is necessary for the majority of states. A permit is not required in South Australia or the A.C.T. to maintain captive-bred turtles, although turtles cannot be removed from the wild. Except under very exceptional situations, it is unlawful to send turtles to other regions of the globe (eg zoos).

How big do freshwater turtles get?

Both species eventually attain a shell length of roughly 30cm (about the size of a dinner plate.)

How fast do they grow?

Turtle development is heavily influenced by food. Full size will be attained in between 15 and 20 years at an average development rate, with the turtle reaching saucer size in roughly 5 years. Turtles, on the other hand, may develop more quickly if they are given more than is required.

It is possible to keep a turtle tiny by reducing its nutrition, although underfeeding is not encouraged. Underfed turtles are frail and prone to sickness, and they are unlikely to survive more than 12 – 18 months. More information about feeding may be found here.

How long can they live?

Turtles in the wild may live for more than 50 years, and in rare cases up to 100. A well-cared-for turtle may live in captivity for 20 to 40 years or more.

How do I sex my turtle?

Sexes cannot be distinguished until the turtle reaches maturity, which may take three to five years. Shortneck turtles may then be sexed based on tail length, with sexually mature males having a significantly longer and thinner tails than females. Long neck turtles are sexed by carefully inspecting the underside of the shell where the tail emerges. Males have a triangular shell edge (right), whilst females have a smooth curving edge (left).

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