Aquatic turtles are fun pets to own and watch, but not everyone wants a turtle that grows very big. The Mississippi map turtle doesn't grow quite as large as some other species, like the sliders and cooters, but they still do require a relatively large and deep aquarium habitat. These turtles got their name because their appearance is reminiscent of the tall contour lines of an elevation map and because they inhabit the banks of much of the Mississippi River and many of its southern tributaries. This super skittish turtle needs to always be able to flee to deep water whenever it gets startled. Because these turtles require pristine water quality and startle easily, even captive-bred animals often become ill from stress alone. These are best left as "look only" turtles; caring for them will be comprised of aquarium maintenance steps like lighting, water changes, and a focus on filtration and water flow. For these reasons, the Mississippi map needs a very experienced turtle keeper and is not suitable for children.
Common Name: Mississippi map turtle
Scientific Name: Graptemys pseudogeographica kohni
Adult Size: Females grow to 10 inches; males grow to 5 inches
Life Expectancy: 30+ years
Mississippi Map Turtle Behavior and Temperament
A Mississippi map on dry land feels sort of like a fish out of water. They feel so at home in the water that they don't stray far from any body of water so that they can always dart back into it to make an escape.
Mississippi maps are friendly in a community of turtles, although females will tend to be dominant as they grow twice as big as males. When keeping multiples, limit the number of females that are kept together.
These nervous and shy turtles do not appreciate being handled too much and doing so will deny the animal its safe place: the water. With strong jaws made to crush river snails and crustaceans, these animals offer a strong bite, so keep your fingers safely away from the head.
Housing the Mississippi Map Turtle
Of all of the pet aquatic turtle species, these are the turtles that most like a strong current from a large filter or even a powerhead; they like deep water too. Originating in large flowing rivers, they are strong swimmers who feel right at home in mildly turbulent water flow.
Full-grown map turtles need plenty of swimming space, but typically a 75-gallon fish tank will do well for one male turtle; females need about a 125-gallon tank. Gravel built up with some larger rocks to create a beach on one side of the tank serves well as a basking area and dry-docking station for your turtle. A variety of floating accessories for the turtle's use as raft haul-outs are available at pet stores.
Water quality is very important to animals that spend the majority of their lives submerged, and dirty water can cause a number of infections. Quality filters are a must for any Mississippi map turtle enclosure to keep the water clean, clear, and free of odors. Submersible filters like the Cascade internal filter and canister filters are your best options for creating very clear water. They should be constantly running to not only provide filtration but also aeration.
Mississippi map turtles don't need extremely warm temperatures but will be more active and have a better appetite if they are kept around 85 degrees F. If temperatures are allowed to drop below the 60s your turtle may become lethargic, not eat well, and start to go into hibernation. Turtles that are housed outside in warmer months should be brought inside to a warmer environment when the outside temperature gets too cold, so they don't go into hibernation.
Map turtles that are housed outside do not need supplemental UVB lights since they receive natural UVB rays from the sun. When housed indoors, however, full-spectrum UVA/UVB lighting and supplemental heat lights are absolutely necessary. UVB lighting should be provided for 12 hours each day and year-round in the form of a special reptile UVB bulb. Also, this bulb should be replaced every six months since the invisible UVB rays expire before the visible white light does.
Food and Water
Map turtles are omnivores that eat their food while swimming. Aquatic turtle pellets are a good staple diet for map turtles, but they should also get some fresh, leafy vegetables or plants. Dark, leafy greens like romaine, dandelion greens, and fresh parsley should be placed in the water on a regular basis or clipped to the side of the tank with a suction cup clip sold in the fish department. Fresh, chopped apple pieces and freeze-dried shrimp can be offered as treats but should not make up a large percentage of your turtle’s diet.
For the meat portion of their diet, map turtles also eat some insects, crustaceans, and fish. Fatty fish like goldfish should be avoided; select larger, higher protein food items. The majority of their diet should be plant-based from the formulated turtle pellets and the fresh greens.
In order to prevent captive, non-foraging turtles from becoming obese, the amount to feed should be whatever they will eat in under six minutes. If using this schedule, feed your Mississippi map turtle no more than three days per week. If feeding daily, only give what they will eat in under two to three minutes; feed in the morning or afternoon, matching the times when they are typically most active.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
Map turtles are relatively easy to care for with the proper setup and diet. But they can run into some health issues. Intestinal parasites are found naturally in most reptiles, including pet map turtles, but they can become a problem if they overpopulate the intestinal tract. Therefore, annual fecal parasite exams should be performed by your exotics and reptile vet. Appropriate deworming regimes can help.
If water quality is a problem, your turtle can get skin, shell, and ear infections from the dirty water. If too much algae builds up on your turtle's shell or skin, use a soft toothbrush to help keep it clean. Ear infections are easily recognized as large bumps behind your turtle's eye. They will need to be cleaned out by your vet, and your turtle will most likely be placed on antibiotics.
Your turtle's beak and nails should be maintained at a good length and may need periodic trimming if they are unable to grind them down by themselves in their environment. Sometimes there is an underlying health issue that is causing the excessive growth.
Without proper UVB lighting and calcium from the turtle pellets, map turtles are likely to develop metabolic bone disease and shell deformities. If you suspect your turtle has a health issue, bring it to the vet as soon as possible.
Choosing Your Mississippi Map Turtle
Mississippi map turtles should have no signs of flaking or unusual bumps on both the front and back shell. Their eyes should be clear, and their skin should not show any signs of irritation or infection. Whenever possible, arrange to watch the animal eat before taking it on as your pet, just to ensure that it has a healthy appetite.
Your best bet is to get your turtle from a reputable breeder rather than capturing one in the wild and trying to bring it home. A breeder can tell you the turtle's history and health background; with a wild turtle, however, it may be harboring some hitchhiking parasites.
If you're interested in other small pet aquatic turtles, check out:
Otherwise, check out other types of reptiles and amphibians that can be a pet!