Yellow Bellied Turtles
A bit more about the Yellow Bellied Turtles...
Yellow bellied turtles are native to the Eastern United States but are captive bred in the UK.
Their Latin name is: Trachemys scripta elegans. Other names you will see are the Yellow Bellied Terrapin or Slider. They are all the same animal.
The Yellow Bellied Turtle is an aquatic freshwater species which has evolved to live in warmer waters than are found in the UK.
They are strong swimmers but spend a good deal of their time basking in the sun on rocks and logs. They are omnivororous (i.e. they eat both meat and vegetable matter). Young turtles tend to feed more on animal protein while adults tend to feed more on vegetation. In the wild they start by eating a wide variety of snails, fish fry, small crustaceans, insect larvae and amphibian larvae, together with a variety of land and water plants.
Generally, they are very sociable animals but can still bite humans. Several turtles can be kept in small groups, but remember that this has significant implications for the size of tank and filtration systems that will need to be purchased especially as they grow.
As with all reptiles, to successfully keep these animals in captivity, you need to imitate as closely as possible the conditions which they have evolved to live in in the wild.
Some reports suggest this species has lived in captivity for over 100 years although the average lifespan is more likely to be up to 25 years. This is still a long-term commitment though – something to consider very seriously when purchasing really cute little babies! Also bear in mind that these turtles grow up to 13” long which need large tanks to keep them in.
Overall, this species is suitable for keeping as a pet as long as attention is paid to the size of the tank, water filtration and appropriate feeding, heating and lighting.
- 15-25 years in the wild
- 10-12 years in captivity, but can be longer
- Adults; males: 5-8” long; females: 8-13” long.
- Females are larger than males.
Tank / Enclosure
A large fish tank is usually the most suitable. As a rough guide, the minimum dimensions should be 3 times the length of the shell wide and 6 times the length of the shell long.
If you have more than one, the measurements should be increased by half as much again for each extra animal. On average, this equates to a single adult requiring a tank of 60 gallon capacity, adding an extra 20 gallons for each additional turtle.
When they are small, a 10-15 gallon (24” x 12” x 12”) tank may be sufficient to house up to 4 turtles. However, small turtles will quickly grow into larger turtles so unless you are planning to repeatedly spend money on upgrading your tank we suggest that you should consider purchasing a tank (and filtration system) which is suitable for the adult sized animals from the outset.
Another rough guide is 10 gallons for every inch length of turtle in the tank.
A basking area that allows your turtle to climb out of the water onto a perch should be provided. Such areas must be large enouch for all the turtles in your tank to move around a little and dry out. They should be smooth but have sufficient grip to allow them to haul themselves out of the water.
Water depth should be a minimum of the shell width so that the turtle can roll over if it lands upside down. A water depth of 16-18” for adult turtles is desirable.
Substrates can be used but they are difficult to clean and require very efficient filtration systems which can be very expensive. There is some evidence to suggest that turtles can develop pressure sores in tanks that do not have appropriate substrates. We recommend that you use a gravel substrate larger than they can swallow with an under gravel external filtration system (appropriate advice can be obtained for reputable aquarium suppliers). The use of external sumps to assist filtration with larger tanks is recommended. Combined with regular large water changes, then water quality can still be maintained.
There are three basic types of filtration system:mechanical, chemical and biological
Mechanical filtration is essentially material that traps organic matter from water that is pumped through it. Many of the modern power canister filters use sponge-like materials and floss as mechanical filters. These must be cleaned or replaced regularly, sometimes several times a week depending on the waste load on the system.
Chemical filtration is generally achieved by the addition of chemicals or charcoal to bind other noxious chemicals from the water and hence rendering them non-toxic.
Ultraviolet radiation can also be used as a form of chemical filtration to kill potential pathogens. These can be bought as powered in-line water treatment units from most aquarium shops. Remember that the UV bulbs need replacing at regular intervals.
Biological filters use naturally occurring bacteria to digest and degrade potential toxins (eg ammonia and nitrite) to less toxic compounds (eg nitrates). Such filters have substrates in them with very high surface areas which the bacterial colonise and filter the water as it flows over them.
The water should be clear and odour free at all times. All waste should be removed immediately.
Good quality filtration will prolong the time between water changes but should not be regarded as a substitute for regular water changes. These turtles are very messy animals and create a lot of waster which very quickly pollutes the water.
Water 20-25C; basking area 28-30C
Water heating can be achieved using a thermostatically controlled aquarium heater suitable for the volume of water. Care should be taken to ensure that suitable guards are applied to such heaters to prevent burns occurring.
Air heating will usually be provided by the UV-B lights, although incandescent lamps can also be used to further adjust air temperatures to the correct levels.
Temperature should be measured at various strategic points throughout the tank, both above and below water.
A standard UV-B reptile specific reptile light (e.g. Reptisun / Reptiglo) must be positioned within 45cm of the basking area. This should be on for 10 hours per day on a timer and the bulb should be replaced every 6 months.
Incandescent lamps can be used to provide additional lighting.
Variety is important. Whilst commercial turtle food may be convenient, we do not recommend it as the sole food source. Chopped fresh fish and meat should be used to make up around 60-70% of the diet. The rest of the diet can be a mixture of dark green leafy vegetables and commercial turtle food.
Commercially bred insects such as meal worms, wax worms and crickets can be used as treats.
For smaller turtles, daphnia and blood worms can be fed.
Live pond plants are an excellent addition to the tank both visually and from a nutritional point of view.
Adult females tend to be more herbivorous, while adult males tend to be more carnivorous.
A mineral supplement such a Nutrobal (VetArk) should be used to dust the meat sources twice weekly.
Vegetable matter can be left in all the time.
Meat and turtle food should be fed every other day. Allow 40 minutes for feeding and then remove all remaining food. Beware not to feed on demand – these turtles can learn to beg and this does not necessarily mean they are hungry.
With adult turtles, if you choose to feed by hand, we recommend that you use tweezers or tongs since it is not unknown for fingers to be mistaken for food which can be painful!
And finally .....
Most of the conditions that we see these turtles for in a veterinary context are the result of poor environment and husbandry.