Native to ponds in the Eastern United States from Texas to New York, Eastern mud turtles are popular as pets largely because of their small size. Rarely growing to be over five inches long, mud turtles are aquatic turtles that are small and compact. Their care requirements are similar to other aquatic turtles, but unlike some of their relatives, they are semi-terrestrial.
Unlike many other reptiles, and especially aquatic turtles, mud turtles hardly ever bask. They spend most of their time walking, buried under leaves, or settling on the bottoms of shallow ponds rather than trying to soak up the sun. While they may be well-suited for older children who can properly care for them, mud turtles are probably not a safe pet for a younger child. Since they need both land and water habitats, their keeper must have an intermediate level of skill in tank and terrarium construction.
Common Name: Mud turtle, Eastern mud turtle
Scientific Name: Kinosternon subrubrum
Adult Size: Up to 5 inches
Life Expectancy: Up to 50 years
Mud Turtle Behavior and Temperament
These little turtles look quite cute, but don't assume that they'll be docile and friendly. Mud turtles are on the grouchy side and will bite with their curved beaks if they feel provoked or nervous. This is one of several reasons to avoid picking up or touching a pet mud turtle unless it's absolutely necessary.
Some people become concerned if they smell a foul odor all of a sudden coming from their mud turtle. Mud turtles are closely related to musk turtles and, like these relatives, mud turtles can secrete an awful-smelling liquid to scare off predators. Most mud turtles raised in captivity will never use this defense mechanism, but owners should know that mud turtles do have this capability to produce a musky odor.
Housing the Mud Turtle
Despite their small adult size, these turtles need adequate room to swim and dive when kept indoors in an aquatic terrarium. Provide at least a 40-gallon fish tank that has a land half and a water half. This allows your turtle to swim and dive but also room to roam around and burrow on dry land. Make sure the water depth is equal to twice their length. For a female turtle, it's a good idea to get a 50-100-gallon tank.
Using gravel on the bottom of the water half of the tank will keep it cleaner than using a muddy bottom, and a floating dock may be a welcome addition. However, for the land portion, consider adding a second tank, placed on its side, atop the rim of the water tank to create a double-decker habitat. With this kind of setup, create a safe, centrally located ramp between the upper and lower level so your turtle can safely access both levels without tumbling out of the enclosure and onto the floor. Make sure the substrate you use is large so your turtle doesn't swallow the mud turtle.
Mud turtles are so named because they like to burrow in mud when they hibernate, but you don't have to have a muddy enclosure just because you have a mud turtle. Encouraging your turtle to hibernate is not recommended in captivity, so it's not necessary to provide mud, despite the turtle's name. Wet leaves and loam are sufficient for the turtle to bury itself in the dry portion of the terrarium.
Ensure that all parts of the habitat do not get too cold. Turtles of all kinds require heat lights as well as UVB lights. Meant to keep your mud turtle warm, large heat lights warm the entire enclosures that mud turtles use. Traditional reptile heat bulbs and a separate UVB bulb should be utilized to prevent the enclosure, which should be at a water temperature of 74-78 degrees Fahrenheit. Ambient tank temperature should be between 78 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit.
UVB lights help the turtle produce Vitamin D3 so that their digestive system can properly absorb calcium. The UVB bulb should stay on for a 12-hour cycle and be replaced every six months. Even if it doesn't burn out, its ability to make invisible UVB rays will run out before the visible portion of the bulb burns out.
Food and Water
Mud turtles are omnivores, but the majority of their diet consists of worms, fish, snails, and other foods typically found in ponds. Offer one protein meal until satiation every other day. Turtle pellets are a nice addition to their captive diet.
Also, feed whatever volume they will eat of the dark green, leafy vegetables like fresh parsley and dandelion greens; other salad greens (not iceberg or romaine lettuce) should also be offered fresh daily. Provide calcium supplements daily for hatchlings and three times a week for adults. Food should be provided several times during the week. In addition, feed one protein meal a day (can be insects, snails, worms, or small fish).
Although it's not ideal to handle mud turtles frequently, some owners create a separate sub-enclosure (like a clear, floating plastic box) for feeding their pets, since mud turtles are exceptionally messy eaters. If you don't want to move them to a feeding area, just be aware that you may need some cleanup time after feeding.
Although mud turtles are not exceptionally strong swimmers, they do spend much of their time in the water. Use a submersible or canister filter to help keep the water in your turtle's tank fresh and aerated as they need clean water to prevent infections and illnesses. Use more than one filter to keep water clean and clean the rocks in the tank every two weeks with diluted bleach and run water over them to rinse off the bleach before placing it back in the enclosure.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
It's always helpful to bring your turtle in for an annual checkup with an exotic pet veterinarian. The most obvious health problem with any aquatic turtle is poor shell health. Dirty water, incorrect lighting, and an inappropriate diet can lead to flaking shells, shell deformities, and even shell rot.
Other diseases that are easily reversed include ear infections, vitamin deficiencies, metabolic bone disease, and intestinal parasites. Again, improving your turtle's water quality, overhead lighting, and diet should suffice. Have a fecal sample from your mud turtle checked yearly for intestinal parasites; these can usually be expelled with the appropriate deworming treatment.
If you intend a mud turtle to be a pet for a child, be aware of the connection between aquatic turtles and Salmonella. Turtles are cute and children naturally want to pick them up and play with them, but since they may harbor Salmonella, turtles can pose a health risk to anyone who handles them. Children are thought to be most at risk since they're less likely to wash their hands after touching an aquatic turtle.
Choosing Your Mud Turtle
Mud turtles should have smooth shells with no signs of flaking or unusual bumps. Their eyes should be clear, and their skin should not show any signs of irritation or infection.
Your best bet is to get your mud turtle from a reputable breeder; do your research before you make your selection.
Similar Species to the Mud Turtle
If you're trying to decide which aquatic turtle is the best fit for you, here are some species that are similar to the mud turtle:
- Painted Turtle Species Profile
- Red-eared Slider Species Profile
- Diamondback Terrapin Species Profile
You can also check out other profiles of aquatic turtle species that can be your pet.
Common Diseases of Aquatic Turtles. VCA Hospitals.
Salmonella Outbreaks Linked to Small Turtles. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.