Aquatic turtles are fun to watch, especially when they're as unique looking as the African sideneck turtle. These turtles got their common name because they're unable to tuck their heads entirely inside their shells, so they tuck them to the side instead. Sidenecks are on the larger side as far as turtles go, and they can live for several decades. Their shell is often a dark brown, and their skin ranges from olive to brown with black markings on the top of their head. They have large, round eyes and a mouth that looks like it’s fixed into a permanent smile. Sidenecks have moderate care needs but can be suitable for beginners if you're willing to put in the work.
Common Names: African sideneck turtle, African side-necked turtle, African helmeted turtle, marsh terrapin, crocodile turtle
Scientific Name: Pelomedusa subrufa
Adult Size: 7 to 12 inches long
Life Expectancy: 25 to 50 years (or more)
African Sideneck Turtle Behavior and Temperament
African sidenecks have longer necks than most other species of turtles. This gives them a distinct advantage over their fellow turtles: If they find themselves turned upside-down, these turtles can right themselves using their neck muscles. Most other turtles are helpless when turned on their shells.
You can socialize pet aquatic turtles with frequent interaction, and African sidenecks are no exception. They might be a little shy at first, but once they're comfortable, they're typically inquisitive, active turtles that can be interesting to watch.
However, like other aquatic turtles, these animals aren't for handling. They're stressed very easily, and they might bite when provoked. Plus, they might carry salmonella bacteria, so it's important to wash your hands after handling anything in their environment. And it's probably best to keep them away from small children due to the risk of infection.
Housing the African Sideneck Turtle
Your turtle should be able to swim and dive in its aquarium, so the larger it is, the better. Ideally, you should have at least a 75-gallon aquarium that is half to three-quarters full of water. Also, provide a dry land area using a floating dock or large rocks, so your turtle can climb out of the water to dry off. Use a secure metal mesh screen lid to keep your turtle safe, especially if you have other pets.
Moreover, invest in a quality water filter. Aquatic turtles defecate in the water, and without a filter, you'll have to do weekly water changes. Some people prefer canister filters while others like the smaller submersible filters. For a large tank, a quality canister filter is typically your best option.
In addition to keeping the water clean, you should dechlorinate the water by either letting it sit out for 24 hours before adding it to the tank or by adding a dechlorinating solution. A recommended pH of 6.5 (a fairly neutral pH) should be maintained and can be easily checked with water test strips from the pet store.
African sidenecks require supplemental heat from a heat lamp to maintain their body temperature. Heat lamps vary in wattage and should maintain an ambient temperature of around 80 degrees Fahrenheit with a basking temperature of around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature should never drop below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, even at night when the basking light gets turned off.
African sidenecks also need UV lighting to properly metabolize calcium. Keep a UV-emitting lamp on the tank for around 12 hours per day to maintain a normal day-night cycle. These lights typically need to be around 10 to 12 inches away from where your turtle sits outside of the water. And the bulbs usually need to be replaced every six to nine months. Follow the manufacturer's instructions on your specific bulb.
Substrate is the material that lines the bottom of your turtle’s aquarium. It can help to mimic the look and feel of the animal's natural environment. A substrate isn’t essential, and it will collect food and waste, requiring regular cleaning. But if you wish to use a substrate, many owners opt for sand, large pebbles, or gravel.
Food and Water
Like most aquatic turtles, African sidenecks are omnivores. They eat some plant material, as well as insects, fish, crustaceans, and aquatic turtle pellets. Turtle pellets should include the calcium and other vitamins and minerals that your turtle needs. Meat (such as chicken or beef) should never be fed to your aquatic turtle.
Feed your turtle as much as it will eat in a 15- to 30-minute period roughly every 24 hours. Remove the uneaten food, so it doesn't spoil or clog the filter.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
Aquatic turtles are often afflicted with parasites, such as roundworms. These are tricky to treat because the turtle might not show obvious symptoms. Parasitic infections are usually discovered during an exam by a reptile veterinarian.
African sideneck turtles also are prone to vitamin A deficiency. Signs of this can include swelling and pus around the eyes.
Plus, like most reptiles, African sideneck turtles are predisposed to respiratory infections. You might notice your turtle wheezing if it has a respiratory infection, along with excess mucus around its nasal passages and mouth.
Moreover, shell rot—perhaps the most common illness to affect aquatic turtles—is also a concern for African sidenecks. This disease usually begins as a fungal or bacterial infection. And as it progresses, it can cause painful ulcers on the turtle's shell.
All of these conditions should be treated by a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles. Don't try to treat a sick turtle with a home remedy before checking with your vet first.
Choosing Your African Sideneck Turtle
Visit a reputable breeder or rescue organization to acquire an African sideneck turtle. The seller should be able to tell you about the turtle's origin and health. Young turtles often cost between $50 and $100. When selecting your turtle, look for any signs of illness, such as flakiness on the shell, difficulty breathing, lethargy, or a lack of appetite.
Similar Species to the African Sideneck Turtle
If you’re interested in similar pets, check out:
Otherwise, check out other types of reptiles and amphibians that can be your new pet.
Pet Turtles: Cute But Commonly Contaminated with Salmonella. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2020