If you're interested in an aquatic pet that's a little out of the ordinary, consider a softshell turtle. As the name suggests, these strange-looking turtles lack the one characteristic almost all turtles share: a hard shell. This makes them more susceptible to attacks in the wild. But unlike their fellow turtles, softshells can move quickly on land. This family of turtles is native to parts of Africa, Asia, and North America. In places where turtle soup is a regular menu item, it's likely that softshell turtle meat is part of the recipe. But if they can avoid the stew pot and the occasional alligator, softshell turtles can be intriguing pets for the right owner. These turtles are more for watching than for handling as pets. And they do require some effort to get their housing setup correct. But once you establish a routine, their agile swimming and other antics can entertain you for many years.
Common Names: Softshell turtle, smooth softshell turtle, Florida softshell turtle, spiny softshell turtle
Scientific Names: Apalone mutica, Apalone spinifera, Apalone ferox
Adult Size: Up to 14 inches long for Apalone mutica and Apalone spinifera; over 2 feet long for Apalone ferox
Life Expectancy: 25 years or more
Softshell Turtle Behavior and Temperament
These turtles are foragers in the wild and prefer to submerge themselves in mud when on land. Because they are vulnerable to predators due to their lack of a shell, softshell turtles can be aggressive. It's not a good idea to house pairs of them together because they'll likely attack each other. They have sharp claws and strong jaws that can do serious damage. Likewise, these turtles generally don't like being handled and aren't timid about attacking a person if they feel threatened.
Furthermore, don't plan to have a softshell turtle as a pet in a home with a small child due to their aggressive nature. Plus, curious dogs, cats, and other pets can do serious damage to a softshell turtle and also might be injured in the process.
Female softshell turtles get to be much larger than the males, so owners must be prepared to find them a sufficiently large enclosure. That large enclosure also requires a moderate amount of care to keep it clean and properly heated, so this isn't a low-maintenance pet.
Housing the Softshell Turtle
The kind of softshell turtle you choose will determine the size of tank you need. For instance, the Florida softshell turtle can weigh over 40 pounds and reach over 2 feet long, requiring a large area to swim. At roughly half that size, the spiny and smooth softshell turtles are more manageable as pets. They can be kept in a large aquarium that's at least 75 to 100 gallons.
The water must be kept very clean, and there should be nothing sharp or rough that could cause a wound on your softshell turtle in that tank. Canister filters, submersible filters, and other efficient filtration systems should be utilized to prevent bacterial and fungal infections. Moreover, provide driftwood or a floating island to allow your turtle to leave the water and bask when necessary. And include live aquatic plants if possible.
Most softshells do well in enclosures that are kept at 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Water heaters designed for fish, as well as reptile heat lights, can be utilized to maintain an optimal temperature. A basking lamp around 90 degrees Fahrenheit is usually ideal.
UVB lighting is recommended in addition to heat lights to allow the turtle to metabolize calcium. These lights should be kept on for around 10 to 12 hours per day to mimic a natural day-night cycle, and they should not be blocked by any glass or plastic. The bulbs typically should be changed every six to nine months, following the manufacturer's recommendations.
In the wild, softshell turtles love to bury themselves in the sand and mud. Provide clean play sand at the bottom of their tank to encourage this natural behavior. Don't use harsh substrates, such as gravel, which can hurt the turtle's fragile body.
Food and Water
Softshell turtles eat a variety of insects, amphibians, eggs, and fish in the wild. In captivity, they are also primarily carnivores but will adapt to eating floating turtle pellets. Fish, gut-loaded crickets (crickets fed nutritious foods that then pass to your pet), worms, and other readily available prey items are typically offered to pet softshell turtles.
Larger softshell turtles will even eat pinky mice and small amphibians, such as frogs. You should always place the food in the water and let your turtle eat without having to get out of its pool. In general, feed adults once daily as much as they can consume in 15 minutes. But check with your veterinarian about the quantity and timing of the feedings for your turtle's age and size. They do not need a separate water dish.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
In the wild, softshell turtles are a favorite meal for alligators. And even in captivity, these turtles are much more vulnerable to injury than other pet turtles because they lack a hard shell. Wounds and consequent infections are common in softshell turtles, along with ear infections and intestinal parasites.
Annual checkups with a veterinarian who specializes in exotic pets are recommended. Opt for a fecal exam to check for parasites, which can wreak havoc on a turtle's immune system and overall health. Along with routine vet care, proper tank setup and water quality are key to keeping a healthy softshell turtle.
Choosing Your Softshell Turtle
Because of their complex care needs, softshell turtles usually aren't recommended for beginners. If you think a softshell turtle is a good fit for you, get your turtle from a reputable breeder or rescue organization that can provide information on its origin and health. Expect to pay between $50 and $150 on average.
Look for a turtle that is alert, moves quickly, and does not appear lethargic. (Remember, these animals move faster than many other turtle species.) Any scaliness or cuts on the turtle's shell might indicate a turtle that has suffered an injury, which could mean it has other less obvious health issues as well. Moreover, its eyes should be clear and free of any mucus or crustiness.
Similar Species to the Softshell Turtle
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Otherwise, check out other types of reptiles and amphibians that can be your new pet.
"Spiny Softshell Turtle". National Wildlife Federation, https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Reptiles/Spiny-Softshell-Turtle.