Mud turtles are small-sized, semi-aquatic, easy-to-care-for pets. This PetPonder article explains their requirements, and describes how to take care of them. Keep your exotic pets healthy and comfortable with the help of the useful tips provided here.
Did You Know?
When handled or threatened, the eastern mud turtle could sometimes bite with its sharp, hooked beak. The bite can be likened to a sharp pinch.
Aquatic turtles belonging to the genus Kinosternon are commonly known as mud turtles. There exist a number of species, for example, K. Baurii or striped mud turtle, K. Subrubrum or eastern mud turtle or common mud turtle, K. Oaxacae or Oaxaca mud turtle, etc. Some species are further classified into sub-species. These small turtles are commonly found in the United States, Mexico, Central America, and South America. Maximum number of mud turtle species are found in Mexico. K. Dunni, K. Leucostomum, and K. Scorpioides are the three species of mud turtles that are found in South America. As the name suggests, the Oaxaca mud turtle is native to Mexico. The conservation status of some of these species is ‘Near Threatened’, ‘Endangered’, or ‘Least Concern’, while the status of some other species, for example, Dunn’s mud turtle (Kinosternon dunni) and Durango mud turtle (Kinosternon durangoense) is ‘vulnerable.’
Mud turtles are slightly different from musk turtles which belong to the three genera Sternotherus, Claudius, Staurotypus. Mud turtles are smaller than musk turtles. The carapaces (upper section of the exoskeleton or shell) of musk turtles are highly domed. Mud turtles are popular as pets, mainly because of their small size and adaptive nature. Their length is usually less than 5 inches.
Mud Turtle Care
➺ The color of the outer shell of a mud turtle may vary from species to species. It can be olive to dark-brown. The yellow mud turtle (Kinosternon flavescens), commonly found in the central United States and Mexico, is an olive-colored turtle, but has yellow markings on its throat, head, and on both sides of its neck.
➺ Identifying the eastern mud turtle is quite difficult. Its keel-less, patternless carapace can be 3 – 4 inches (7.6 – 10.2 cm) long. It can be of any color, from yellow to black. However, the double-hinged plastron (the nearly flat part of its shell) is yellowish to brown. Hinges are not developed in the young. The eastern mud turtle has only 11 marginal scutes (plates). Most turtles have 12. It has webbed feet, yellow eyes with dark clouding, grayish limbs and tail, and a yellowish-gray chin and throat. The plastron may have a dark pattern, while the chin and throat may have brown stripes or patches.
➺ The length of the carapace of the striped mud turtle can be 3 -4¾ inches (8 – 12 cm). The carapace is smooth, and the turtle can be identified with the help of the three light-colored stripes along the length of the carapace.
Mud turtles live in ponds and other freshwater habitats. They can be seen walking on sand bottoms. They like to wander about on land too. They are likely to be found in grass or even in cow dung, foraging for food. They prefer to live in ponds with abundant vegetation. Sometimes, they are seen crossing roads in search of nest sites or water. Mississippi mud turtles are found in shallow stagnant waters, such as swamps, ditches, and bayous. In moist habitats, they are often seen wandering on land in search of food. The yellow mud turtle spends as much time on land as in the water.
All mud turtles are carnivorous, consuming various aquatic invertebrates, small fish, insects, flies, tadpoles, fogs, crayfish, crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians, and even carrion. Some species like the striped mud turtle (Kinosternon baurii) are omnivorous. Apart from fish, snails, insects, and carrion, they eat algae and other plants. Taking care of pet mud turtles is very easy, because they enjoy eating commercial turtle food, feeder fish, and worms. You can even feed turkey cold cuts or crawdads to them. Studies show that mud turtles enjoy eating shrimp, especially in spring. You should feed them fresh, dark leafy vegetables ,like parsley, dandelion greens, etc. They love eating guppy fish, minnows, snails, red worms, and earthworms. To maintain their health, you should provide them ‘different types’ of healthy food. Incorporate various food items in their diet. Young turtles should be fed everyday, but you can feed adults 2 or 3 times per week.
➺ Mud turtles are sexually dimorphic. Striped mud turtles nest from September to June. The nesting location is decided by the females. The eggs, which are about 2.5 cm (1 in) long, take 13 to 19 weeks to hatch. The hatchlings are about 1 in long, and unlike the adults, have keeled carapaces.
➺ The white, oval eggs of an eastern mud turtle may vary in size. They have a thick, hard, but brittle shell. The shell surface is covered with a network of fine, irregular lines. The eggs do not take up water, as most turtle eggs do. The breeding season is April to May, and the eggs are laid thereafter. The clutch size is 2 to 5 eggs.
➺ Mississippi mud turtles breed from late April to early June. Females lay 1 – 6 eggs in well-drained, sandy soil.
Although their size is manageable, they should have enough space to swim in the tank. Lack of exercise can weaken them, and can shorten their lifespan. Being frequent baskers, they require ample access to haul out. A 20-gallon tank is adequate for a pair of hatchlings, until they double in size. 3 – 4 inches water depth is enough for the hatchlings. They should be able to climb out of water to bask. Longer tanks are better than the deeper ones, as they need maximum floor space for activities. In case of adults, you should provide approximately 10 gallons of cage space for each inch of turtle length. A 75-gallon aquarium with about 12 inches of water depth is recommended for a pair of adults. It is well and good if you can provide an even larger aquarium.
➺ Mud turtles like to live in soft, oxygenated, clean water, with plenty of decorations such as rocks, PVC pipes, driftwood, and aquatic plants. These things provide hiding places and help keep combative males away from each other. The turtles may spend a lot of time buried under gravel and leaves to be out of sight. The decorations should break the surface of the water and provide a good basking site. Turtles like to loiter and explore their environment. In the wild, they burrow in mud during their hibernation. But it is not necessary to provide mud in the tank. Large river pebbles can make a good substrate. Though they swim, they spend a lot of time walking along the bottom of the tank. They also feel secured because of the pebbles. Submerged caves and logs help create places to hide.
➺ Check that the water is filtered properly and regularly. The water in the tank should not be too cold. You can install a water heater and a heating lamp. The temperature should be mid to high 70s. Air temperature can be 75 – 83 degrees F, while basking temperature can be in the mid 80s to the low 90s. A spotlight with a low-wattage bulb (40 – 60 watt) should be placed over the basking spot. Remember, UVB light doesn’t penetrate glass. So, do not place any glass between the bulb and your turtle’s basking site. The turtles would get vitamin D from UVB lamps. As you know, vitamin D promotes absorption of the mineral calcium. As mud turtles are good climbers, it is necessary to place a good-quality screen top over the aquarium.
The mud turtle has an average lifespan of 15 years. It may live a few more years in captivity. Some turtles in captivity have lived for more than 20 years. In captivity, West African mud turtles (a relatively larger species, about 7 – 12 in long) live up to 50 years or even more with proper diet and care.
Common Health Problems
Mud turtles usually suffer from shell health problems. Dirty water, wrong diet, and incorrect lighting can cause eye problems, skin problems, shell deformities, shell flaking, and shell rot. They may develop ear infections, vitamin deficiencies, intestinal parasites, and metabolic bone disease. Checking of the fecal sample may help detect parasites. Direct sunlight, warm, clean, aerated water, and regular checkups with vets can help avoid serious health problems.
➺ Great caution is advised if you are keeping mud turtles with their cousins (other closely related species). If a number of males are kept together, or are kept with unreceptive females, some males may become aggressive and hurt others. The damage can be serious, and some members may get killed.
➺ Mississippi mud turtles, especially the younger ones, should be kept in shallower water. Not being strong swimmers, they may drown in water if it is too deep. The adults can manage with a water depth of 8 in or more, if there are adequate tank decorations to climb on, and an easy access to land areas.
➺ They tend to dig and root around underwater. They stir up a lot of debris. They also eat in the water. Bacteria may grow in the remaining food particles, so powerful filtration is essential. Dirty water can affect their health seriously.
➺ Sometimes, the props and decorations used in the tank fall down. They may trap the digging turtles inside. So, lot of care should be taken while setting up any props.
Mud Turtle Facts
➺ Mud turtles, with the help of the glands situated on the sides of their bodies, give off an offensive, musky odor when disturbed. This action protects them from their predators.
➺ Mississippi mud turtles (K. subrubrum hippocrepis), mainly found in the Bootheel of Missouri, are shy and less aquatic than musk turtles. They are relatively poor swimmers. They would feel comfortable, and would grow well, if they have an extensive land area to bask and wander.
➺ Female turtles reach maturity at 6 – 8 years of age. The carapace of sexually matured females is about 3¼ in long. The carapace of sexually matured males is about 3 – 3¾ in long.
➺ The back edge of an eastern mud turtle is almost perpendicular to the ground.
➺ Males turtles have a concave plastron, while females have a flat one. Males have a long spine-tipped tail, while females have a short tail.
➺ The male is generally larger than the female. The head and legs of a male are larger than that of a female. The male also has rough, scaly patches on the insides of his legs.
➺ Some species, for example, eastern mud turtles, require shallow water as they are not strong swimmers.
➺ During hot, dry periods, mud turtles in the wild aestivate underground in burrows in the mud along the water’s edge. If the drought conditions persist, they may stay underground for more than a year. They also hibernate underground during the winter.
➺ Despite being an aquatic animal, mud turtles can travel great distances over land in search of water, especially in arid habitats.
➺ Females secrete a special scent from their glands to attract males.
➺ Females store the sperms within their reproductive system, where fertilization takes place.
➺ The eggs are very fragile and can be easily broken.
➺ In the wild, water snakes, large predatory fish, and large turtles often eat the eggs laid by mud turtles. They eat young babies too. Herons, weasels, skunks, foxes, raccoons, snakes, crows, shrews, possums, and alligators eat adult turtles. Many times, turtles crossing the roads are killed by passing cars. Industrial, agricultural, and urban development, resulting in destruction of their habitat, is equally responsible for the reduced population of turtles.
Mud turtles, being fairly-low maintenance pets, don’t demand continuous attention from their owners. They rarely grow larger than 5 inches, making them ideal for most homes. As they are frequent baskers, they may escape from the tanks. Proper care should be taken while setting up the tank. Pet turtles should not be released into nearby rivers or ponds. They can spread diseases that could kill resident turtles. Similarly, turtles should not be collected from the wild. Disturbing the habitat can affect their health seriously.