Keeping aquatic or semi-aquatic turtles as pets has become quite popular these days. That might have something to do with the fact that they are easily available and relatively inexpensive. Softshell turtles, though a little aggressive, make great pets. They look like pancakes because of their soft shell and flattened body, and are fun to watch.
Softshell turtles belong to the Trionychidae family. There are about thirty different species of softshell turtles; prominent ones being Apalone ferox (commonly known as the Florida softshell turtle), Apalone mutica, Apalone spinifera, Apalone spinifera emoryi, and Trionyx axenaria.
With the exception of few species that can tolerate saline water, most of these are freshwater turtles that inhabit lakes, streams, rivers, and ponds. They prefer slow moving rivers, and are usually present in water bodies with sandy and muddy bottoms or even wetlands. Softshell turtles live in colonies and are diurnal. They bask on sandbars or large rocks that are at the water edge. They bury themselves in mud or sand and can remain submerged for up to 5 hours. Their breeding season starts in May and they lay their eggs in June or July. Females lay eggs in nests dug in the sandbars. Their eggs are brittle and shaped like ping-pong balls.
As the name suggests, the carapace of softshell turtles lacks horny scutes or scales that are commonly associated with turtles. Their carapace is leatherlike and pliable, with a layer of solid bone beneath it. They have oval, flattened, and streamlined bodies with soft, flexible shells. They are mostly found at the bottom of ponds and lakes. The shells are camouflaged to match the bottom of the pond, which makes it difficult to spot them in their natural habitat. They remain hidden in the wetland, buried in the sand or mud, with only their heads or snouts popping out. They have long necks and snorkels that allow them to breathe from their hiding places. Adult males are gray or brown in color and have dots and dashes on the back, whereas females are drab in color, with dark blotches on their carapace.
Softshelled turtles are typically carnivorous. As they dwell at the bottom of lakes, ponds, and wetlands, their diet mainly consists of small fish and insects. You need to note though, that their diet also differs in accordance to species. Their long necks and powerful jaws enable them to lunge at the prey and hold on to it till the prey dies. Their natural diet consists of crayfish, insects, and various small fish. They also feed on carrion and certain plant material. Worms, caterpillars, crustaceans, and some amphibians also form a part of the diet of some softshell species.
Softshell turtles are very delightful display animals. At the same time though, they are extremely delicate and thus, require a lot of care and equipment if you are planning to keep them as pets. They have a soft carapace, which can be easily damaged by scrapes and bites. They need a large tank filled with lots of sand for submerging themselves. As these turtles are shy of humans, the aquarium should be in an area with low noise. It should have proper filtration systems to keep the water clean, as these turtles are prone to various infections and diseases.
In the right environment and with proper food these turtles serve as enjoyable and fascinating pets. So, get ready to have these wonderful creatures in your tank!