The African sideneck turtle is an interesting kind of turtle that belongs to the Pelomedusidae family of freshwater turtles.
The side-necked turtles are unable to completely withdraw their heads into their shells; instead, they draw them slightly to the side and fold them beneath the upper edge of their shells, hence they are known as African side-necked turtles.
They are very popular pet turtles because of their unusual head tucking behavior and can be kept in tanks or ponds.
In this post, we’ll go through everything you need to know about African sideneck turtles, including what they eat, how to care for them, and overall recommendations.
African Sideneck Turtle Overview
The family (Pelomedusidae) contains two living genera (Pelomedusa and Pelusios), which are distinguishable from their closest relatives by a hinge in the front section of the plastron.
The African sideneck turtle is native to sub-Saharan Africa, including Madagascar, São Tomé, and Seychelles, and is commonly found in lakes, marshes, and swamps.
They prefer to spend the majority of their time in the mud at the bottom of lakes or rivers where they consume invertebrates such as insects, mollusks, and worms.
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African sidenecks are generally dark in color with a wide, poorly defined yellow region on their undersides (known as plastrons).
They have olive-to-brown heads with black markings on top and two barbels that protrude from the lower jaw.
Their feet are somewhat webbed and equipped with long, sharp talons or nails. The two barbel nubs on this juvenile African sideneck turtle’s chin can be seen in the drawing below.
The African sideneck has a cute face with a fixed-in-smiling-shaped mouth and big round eyes, unlike many turtle species that have more serious reptilian features. When it removes its head to tuck under its shell, it appears to be playing coy.
There are three distinct forms of the African sideneck, despite the fact that there are no official subspecies. The “standard form,” as described above, is one of them; the “rainforest form,” where the turtle has an overall dark brown or black shell; and the “savannah form,” which has a lighter, creamier color reminiscent of caramel with a full yellow plastron.
|Common Names||African side-necked turtles, side-necked turtles, West African side-necked turtle, Pelusios castaneus|
|Type of Turtle||Semi-aquatic Turtle|
|Care Level||African mud turtles/sideneck turtles, due to their environmental needs, modest size, and long lifespan, are best left to intermediate and advanced turtle keepers. They are tough reptiles that can endure periods of deprivation.|
|Enclosure Temperatures||Water Temperatures|
80-83 degrees °F (24.4 – 25.4 °C)
90-95 degrees °F (32 – 35 °C) – 10-15 degrees F higher than water temps
|Life Expectancy||Between 30-50 years with the average life expectancy leaning more towards 50 years old|
|Adult Size||Pelusios castaneus (West African Mud Turtle) – Males average size (7-10 inches), Females average size (12 inches)|
Pelomedusa subrufa (African Helmeted Turtle) – Males average size (7-9 inches), Females average size (10-12 inches)
|Feeding||Omnivorous turtles, but they tend to be more carnivorous as hatchlings and juveniles|
|Compatibility||Compatible with safe fishes but not recommended with other turtles|
|Behavior||Aggressive towards other turtles|
|Price Range||Between $50 and $150|
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African Sideneck as Turtle Pets
African sideneck turtles are pets that require proper care, attention, and housing.
They are a bit more sensitive to their environment than some other turtles, but with proper care, they can thrive in captivity.
Turtles are reptiles and therefore, they require the right kind of temperatures and humidity levels.
This is why it’s necessary to understand how to provide the right environment and understand how to keep them healthy and active.
When buying one, be sure it isn’t showing any symptoms of diseases such as:
- Runny noses or eyes
- Overcrowded pens
- Black spots on shell or head
- Red or cloudy eyes
- White patches on plastron or edges of carapace
Are African Sideneck Turtles Hard to Care For?
No, with the proper equipment it’s really easy to take care of a turtle, you just need to know how to replicate a turtle enclosure to your specific turtle needs.
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Young African sideneck turtles will cost between $50 and $100, while adults can be priced anywhere from $100 to $150 depending on the region you’re in.
African sideneck turtles might seem like a cheap pet but that’s a huge misconception.
There are additional costs that you need to be aware of:
|Initial Costs for Setting the Habitat||You’ll need a suitable environment, such as aquariums and filtration systems. You’ll also need a more powerful basking lamp ($25), a basking platform ($30), a 75-gallon tank that costs about $230, a UV light to avoid Vitamin D3 deficiency ($40), water filter (40$), water heater (30$) and other decorating accessories.|
|Food Costs||Food may be purchased for your African sideneck turtle if you obtain it from a pet store. However, if you get your reptile from someone else, you’ll have to conduct some research on what to feed it. On average, food for African sideneck turtles costs $10 -$15 per week.|
|Veterinary Visits Costs||Even if your turtle appears to be fine now, veterinarians advise that you bring it in for regular checks just to be sure. A visit to the veterinarian might cost anywhere from $50-$100 per appointment, with yearly checkups costing much more.|
|Maintenance Costs||Even if your African sideneck turtle’s tank is filtered, water changes are required. It’s also vital to change the water on a regular basis, which might cost $5-$10 every 1-2 weeks. You’ll also have to replace the water heater, which may cost anywhere from $20 to $40.|
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Habitat Recommendation & Set Up
It is recommended to provide a minimum of 10 gallons of space per inch of shell.
Turtles need enough swimming space and the ability to spin completely around in their habitats. They also require activity and stimulation. They can become deformed in little tanks.
Turtles also urinate and defecate in the same water they live in. Filters can only handle so much. If there is a bigger tank, there will usually be more water, lowering the waste concentration.
The size of the tank is directly related to the likelihood of it overheating. The water, as well as the surrounding temperature, will both rise significantly.
Tank Size and Water Depth Requirement
Adult African side neck turtles can reach up to 12 inches in length, so they’ll need an aquarium that holds at least 120 gallons.
Minimum recommended water level should be 2x the length of the shell.
- 4 inches = 8 in or 20 cm of water for depth
- 8 inches = 16 in or 41 cm of water for depth
The more water the healthier the turtle, hatchlings not included.
The tank should be long and thin, with a water depth of at least 16 inches to allow your turtle to swim.
Minimum recommended water level should be 10 US gallons or 38 L per inch of shell
- 4 inches = 40 gallons or 151 litters
- 8 inches = 80 gallons or 303 litters
Alternative Types of Housing
Usually, you will see turtles being held in aquariums, but there are other types of housing that can be used:
- Stock tanks
- Rubbermaid Totes
- Kiddie Pools
- Waterland tubs
- Preformed pond liners
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For the health and cleanliness of your pet, a good filtration system is required. Tank water in a turtle tank may quickly become dirty. It’s not only unsightly, but it also isn’t good for your turtle.
Your filter will remove your turtle’s excrement and any other unsightly waste floating around the tank. It also removes hazardous chemicals and compounds that are produced in the aquarium.
When you have a firm grasp on the fundamentals of the nitrogen cycle, a filter setup will make much more sense.
The nitrogen cycle is the procedure through which nitrogen is recycled from the environment into useable forms for plants and animals.
There are five stages to the process: nitrogen fixation, ammonification, nitrification, denitrification, and return to the environment.
- The conversion of nitrogen into a useable form is known as nitrogen fixation. This can be accomplished through natural means, such as lightning strikes.
- Ammonification is the process of converting nitrogen into ammonium. This can be done naturally, via the decomposition of organic material, or using human intervention
- The technique in which nitrate is converted back into nitrogen gas is known as denitrification. This can be accomplished through natural processes, such as the activity of bacteria. The process of returning nitrogen to the environment in a usable form is known as return to the environment.
The waste and urine from the turtle combine to form ammonia in your aquarium, which must first be changed into nitrite before becoming nitrates.
What causes ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate to develop is your filter’s biological filtration. That’ll be your ceramic rings, sintered glass, and carbon.
The good bacteria colonies will develop on all of those surfaces and convert the ammonia into nitrite. After that, other bacteria colonies will consume the nitrite and transform it into nitrogenates.
So to have a successful aquarium, you need adequate biological filtration.
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Your tank required a weekly partial water change of 25% and a monthly partial of 50% and a full cleaning, yearly.
During water changes, the filter should not be cleaned or changed. Always use aquarium water that has been removed from the tank to rinse off filter pads and other media. Every few weeks, replace charcoal with a phosphorus-free alternative.
Test your water parameters regularly:
- ph between 5.5 – 8
- Chlorine 0
- Ammonia 0
- Nitrites 5.5 ppm, preferably 0
- Nitrates 40 ppm or less
- Specific pH level depends on species
Failure to do water changes will result in excessive shedding, fungus, respiratory infection, digestive complications, and/or retained scutes.
Tank Maintenance Equipment
- Wet Vacuum
- Drill Pump
The water should be heated with a submersible heating element, but any method you use to properly heat the water is acceptable. Turtles can’t maintain their body temperature if the water is too hot, so keep it chilly.
If the water is too hot, your turtle will be unable to go out and bask, resulting in excessive shedding. A submersible heater with automatic temperature control is preferable.
When the turtles have reached a steady temperature, they will naturally sink to the bottom of their enclosure.
The best water temperature for a turtle is between 72 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on its species.
Heater Wattage Recommendations for Turtle Tanks:
|Aquarium Volume||Heat 10° F||Heat 20° F||Heat 30° F|
|20 Gallons||50 watts||75 watts||150 watts|
|25 Gallons||75 watts||100 watts||200 watts|
|40 Gallons||100 watts||150 watts||300 watts|
|50 Gallons||150 watts||200 watts||2×200 watts|
|65 Gallons||200 watts||250 watts||2×250 watts|
|75 Gallons||250 watts||300 watts||2×300 watts|
There are several different substrates to select from, ranging from nothing to huge river pebbles and costly tiles, as well as everything and every size in between.
|Large, Smooth River Rocks||Pros: Adds traction, no impaction hazard|
Cons: Hides debris
|Play Sand||Pros: Easy to clean, fine grains|
Cons: Hides debris
|Bare Bottom||Pros: Easy to clean, no injury hazard, no impaction hazard|
Cons: Aesthetically unattractive
Gravel and small pebbles are not suggested because it might cause impaction. If you use sand, make sure it’s fine play sand.
- Amount: Sand should only be 1-2 inches deep (unless you have a species that burrows such as Softshell or Sidenecks). It should also be substantially under the intake. The intake can be covered to help as well.
- Cleaning: It is inevitable that gasses will get trapped in the sand so it must be stirred up at every tank cleaning. Siphoning will get off all the debris but you can also sieve through the sand with a net to get anything missed by the siphon.
- Play sand or Pool sand: Play sand! It is finer and will pass through the turtle digestive system much easier if digested.
- Rinsing: Use a hose and rinse until you think you’re done.
- Use a bowl: Put sand in the bottom of the empty tank, put a bowl on the sand and start filling the bowl with water and as it overflows it fills up the tank. The stream of water never touches the sand.
Turtles require a basking area in order to profit from the lighting and avoid shell rot.
Turtles don’t control their own body temperatures. As a result, they seek the warmth of natural light or a heat lamp in this scenario. Another reason for basking is to warm their skin so that they may absorb UVB rays.
Both of the lamps should be positioned completely over your basking area. Your turtle will require enough room in its basking area to escape from the heat, regardless of its kind setup.
Two things to consider here on basking areas:
- Make sure they’re cleaned properly, as any parasites or other harmful organisms may be present.
- Make sure you’re building something that’s sturdy enough to withstand a turtle’s shift.
A key consideration when building any kind of basking area is to ensure that the turtle can easily exit the water and avoid injuring its plastron.
Turtles grow quickly, so it’s difficult to give them with adequate swimming area as they get larger.
What you can do, in other words, is give them the entire aquarium for their swimming space by creating a basking area above the tank and filling it to capacity.
Heating the Basking Area
A regular basking lamp that you may buy at a pet store will suffice for their basking area. Just make sure they’re not too close to it when basking.
A temperature of between 85 and 90°F is ideal for basking. Anything hotter than that may burn them or cause them not to want to stay under it.
A good indicator that your basking area is too hot for your turtle, is if the turtle moves from underneath it after a few minutes.
The closer the bulb is to your basking area, the hotter it will be. Take care not to place it too near that your turtle might access it and get burned.
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UVB has a direct impact on the skin’s immune system and stimulates beta-endorphin production, giving sunlight its euphoric aspect. This wavelength range is important for vitamin D3 synthesis in the skin. UVB must be present in a specific range to enable this to happen. The majority of glass and polycarbonate are blocking these wavelengths.
The UVB bulb’s strength and placement are also important factors to consider. Vitamin D3 manufacture in reptiles necessitates both heat and ultraviolet light. That’s when UVA comes into play, and it’s crucial.
Color vision in reptiles is excellent, with a fourth cone that responds to UVA. UVA radiation helps control activities such as feeding, diurnal movement, mating, and other behaviors.
Your lights should be on 10 hours during Winder and Fall and 12 hours during Summer and Spring. The idea is to mimic the natural daylight cycle.
African sidenecks are omnivores in the wild, eating insects, vegetation, and fish that are indigenous to their region. When it comes to feeding your African sideneck, variety is king.
If your turtle simply craves one thing, provide it with a wide range of foods to keep it from becoming fixated on anything. Aside from variety, don’t overfeed your turtles!
Recommended feeding amount for pellets
- Under a year old: Feed daily the amount that would fit in the heat if it were hollow. (4 days pellets, 3 days live or dried feed)
- Over a year old: Feed 2-3 times a week the amount that would fit in the head if it were hollow. (2 days pellets, 1 day live or dried feed)
When your sideneck turtle is young and developing, insects and protein should make up the bulk of its diet. As they get older, most of their carnivorous inclinations drop away.
You can feed your sideneck earthworms, snails, clams, fish, aquatic invertebrates, crickets, roaches, crustaceans, and maybe a few tiny amphibians for meat proteins.
For the greenery, stick to nutrient-dense greens like spinach, romaine lettuce (never iceberg), and red-leaf lettuce. Collard and turnip greens and other vegetables may also be fed to your turtle.
A moderate feeding with carrots, escarole, kale, endive, romaine lettuce is also recommended.
Recommended feeding amount for greens
- Feed one shell size leaf weekly
Because sidenecks are aquatic turtles, their diets may get messy in their tanks. Simply remove your turtle from its tank and feed it in a separate container to avoid frequent tank cleansings.
To prevent food aggression and feeding frenzies, feed multiple turtles one at a time, as described above if you have many.
Wild insects & bugs are not recommended
- In nature, insects and bugs may be carrying parasites, pollutants, illnesses, and pesticides.
- Turtles are opportunistic; in the wild, they will consume whatever is available to them. They can develop tolerances that captive, confined turtles do not have due to their adaptability.
- In captivity, they will be more susceptible to an infestation of parasites and sicknesses as a result of pollutants or pesticides.
We also advise giving a calcium block or other vitamin and mineral supplements from time to time to guarantee your turtle gets the correct amount of nutrients.
Sideneck turtles from the African continent are extremely durable. That being said, it’s a good idea to have a reptile veterinarian on hand before you adopt your pet turtle.
If you think your turtle is sick, get in touch with your reptile veterinarian as soon as possible.
Some of the most frequent illnesses that a turtle can suffer throughout its lifetime include:
- Shell Rot
- Respiratory Infections
- Swelling of the ear(s)
- Caved in areas on the shell
- Jagged edges
- Hanging skin from the limb pockets
- Swollen eye(s)
- Grayish or uneven pigmentation
- Uneven shell color
- Uneven growth lines, including retained scutes
Difference Between Male and Female African Sideneck Turtles
The male African sideneck turtles have broader and bigger heads and the tail will be thicker and larger that can extend past the anal notch.
The female African sideneck turtles tail does not extend much past the anal notch and the plastron is more flatter than a male one which is more concave.
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The sideneck’s shyness will dissipate as it becomes more accustomed to its new surroundings. In fact, once your sideneck has found a home, it will become just as inquisitive as a cat, which is sometimes mistaken for rage.
They can be cheerful little pets that come out to greet you and appear to converse with you, but they should not be handled like other aquatic turtles.
Although they aren’t renowned for aggressiveness against people, they can become frightened or nervous, at which point they are more likely to scratch and bite as a defensive measure.
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African sideneck turtles make great pets because they are relatively easy to care for and can be very social. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when caring for them.
First, be sure to feed them a variety of foods to ensure that they don’t become fixated on any one thing.
Second, give them a moderate amount of greens as well as protein-rich insects and bugs.
Third, provide them with a calcium block or other vitamin and mineral supplement occasionally. Finally, handle them carefully as they may scratch or bite if frightened or nervous.