Return to World Chelonian Trust Main Page for more Turtle and Tortoise Information

FAQ - Frequently asked questions - under constant construction

There are numerous questions that we hear on a very frequent basis.  In an effort to help those looking for basic answers we have created this area as a resource for the beginning and intermediate Chelonian keeper. Keywords and / or phrases have been bolded in the FAQ questions in order to facilitate locating the specific question related to your interest quickly. Answers here are supplied by Darrell Senneke unless noted that the respondent is  either another Trustee of the World Chelonian Trust or a guest respondent.  Click the "Answer" link after each question to be taken to the answer.   


1: I have heard and read in various places that one can count the growth rings of turtles and tortoises to tell how old they are.  How accurate is this? Answer?

2:  I have a painted turtle,  I have got her in a 3' x 1' x 1' tank with gravel and rocks in it.  She appears to be healthy, with a healthy appetite and swims around at great speeds, however, she will not bask. This is quite a new thing, and only started when I installed a new external canister type filter unit. I know how important it is for turtles to bask, what can I do to get things back to normal? Answer?

3: My snapping turtle hatchling is not eating. I tried to feed him worms but he is not opening his mouth. He is 4 days old what should I do? Should I force feed him? Please help Answer?

4: A friend told me that the loss of a hatchling has very little impact on a wild population while the loss of an adult is devastating.  This does not make sense to me as the hatchling has a longer life ahead of it.  He was very insistent that this was true, is he correct? And why?    Answer?

5: Why do all of the care pages stress water temps of 78F and air temps over 80F when the native water temps here never get that warm. The air temp has yet to reach the high 70's here in eastern PA. yet the turtles are out basking everyday. RES, Painteds, Snappers, Muds, I've seen them all. Most days so far, it's only been in the 50's and 60's. If the turtles obviously tolerate and thrive in these lower temperatures, why do we keep them so unnaturally warm, day and night?  Answer?

6:  I have a 1.2 set of Albino RES turtles and found 7 eggs in the water this morning. There looked to be 3 that had been eaten, and another 3 that are still in tact.  Should I assume that the eggs have drowned Answer?

7:  I haven't observed this myself, but my 11-year-old swears our turtle is eating the rocks at the bottom of his tank. I thought maybe he was just eating them and spitting them out, but she says he is swallowing them. Is this normal? It can't possibly be okay, can it? Answer?

8:  I recently purchased a Kwangtung River turtle and noticed you do not have a care sheet, or I could not find a care sheet for them, on the WCT web site for this species.  What can you tell me about their care? Answer?

9:  I want to buy some Grass Hay to feed to my Sulcata but do not know which kind to buy. The feed store offers about 4 different types of Grass Hay. Please tell me what kind of grass hay is best for feeding a baby sulcata. Answer?

10: One of my red-eared sliders recently laid 6 eggs This is the first time the turtles have laid eggs. After the turtle was done giving birth and covered the eggs back up. I then dug the eggs back up and put them in an incubator. for the first few hours the temp. was between 90-95 degrees. Now its at a steady 82 degrees. When I first put the eggs in the incubator they were nice and oval shaped. But the next day 3 out of the 6 had some indentations. The eggs have become wrinkled looking. Is this normal or was it too hot the first day I had them in the incubator. Or could it have been too humid? Please let me now for I'm concerned for my eggs well-being Answer?

11:  : I was notified by friends about a link selling Turtle Care Kits. The kits consist of food and one of those turtle lagoons with the plastic palm tree. The person was also giving away free Red Ear Slider hatchlings with each kit.  As the hatchlings are less than 4 inches, this seems like an attempt to get around the 4 inch law. Is this legal?  Answer?

12:  What kind of turtle or tortoise should I get? Answer?

13: A turtle just laid eggs in my garden, how can I protect the eggsAnswer?

14: My tortoise was soaking in his water dish and I noticed he expelled a gelatinous mass of white droppings! A friend told me this was called urates. What are these and should I worry?    Answer?

15: I have heard that turtles carry salmonella and should not be kept as pets because of this. I love turtles but do not want to get sick How can I avoid this? Answer?

16: How much or how many times should a hatchling eat per day? Answer?

17: How long should a turtle bask per day? Answer?

18: Is a 20 watt fluorescent bulb sufficient for UVB for my hatchling turtles?   Answer?

19: This is question 19?

20: This is question 20?

21: This is question 21?

22: This is question 22?

23: This is question 23?

24: This is question 24?

25: This is question 25?

26: This is question 26?

27: This is question 27?

28: This is question 28?

29: This is question 29?

30: This is question 30?


1: This is one of those things that you read frequently but cannot seem to find much in the way of real information on.  It is based on the thinking that turtles and tortoises will lay down one ring a year, just like trees. Some species of chelonia shed their scutes and so for them this procedure is useless.  Others that do show growth rings may or may not add a ring every year. In fact anyone that keeps tortoises in captivity will tell you that they may go through several growth spurts in a single year when young, in that case multiple rings may be added yearly.  There does appear to be a direct correlation in some species from climates that ensure a growing season contrasted with a season of scarce food or hibernation but even in these species I know of no studies that have been done to calibrate the count of rings with the known age of tagged animals. In any event it is doubtful that rings would be very reliable after the animal reaches maturity, as they would be too small to clearly “read”.  So while the simple answer would be that in some species growth rings may indicate age up to 10 – 12 years, at best this would be an estimate. 

2: It could be that she is not used to the pump at this point and it is making her uneasy and vulnerable.  Another possibility is that the water is warmer now because of heat transference from the pump and her urge to bask is minimized because of it.  Try to get the water temperature below 75 F (don't use a heater if necessary) and the basking spot at about 90 F.  

3: Do not force-feed him.  It is VERY normal for a turtle not to eat for two or three weeks after hatching - at that point they are still living off the yolk sac - internally.   I would continue to offer it small worms every day until he starts taking them

4: Your  friend is indeed correct.  Chelonia have evolved to be long-lived, high reproductive potential animals because the survival rate of the hatchlings is so low.  For example a box turtle can have a reproductive lifetime of more than 75 years. In all that time it only needs to have two hatchlings survive to the age where they are breeding to maintain the population at a stable level.   One would think that we would be up to our collective navels with box turtles at that rate but it does not work out that way.  Many eggs do not hatch because of nest predation, improper conditions or lack of fertility.  Once hatched, a neonate is a quick lunch for almost anything that comes along until it achieves a size that protects it against predators.  Very few hatchlings reach that size.

Throw mankind into the mix and the odds become even more stacked against turtles than nature has ever provided for.  Humans are wasteful animals, and certain species have had their populations explode because of the easy availability of food.  Raccoon, skunk, crow and raven populations have boomed directly because of man. These species are notorious predators of turtle eggs and hatchlings.   

Another hurdle is fire ants:  The red imported fire ant (S. invicta) arrived in the United States in potted plants probably in the 1920s or before. Since that time they have expanded over much of the Southern United States. These ants are noted predators of turtle hatchlings while they are still in the nest and afterwards.   It is not just North America that is suffering fire ant invasion.  In 2001, S. invicta was identified at two sites in Brisbane Australia.  

In a recent study of Gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) by D. M. Epperson and C. D. Heise, 2003, J. Herpetology 37(2): 315-324, hatchling ecology was studied. The authors determined that only 28% of eggs laid in the study hatched. They then tagged 48 hatchlings and tracked them. At the end of just over two years only one hatchling had survived.

5: There is a difference between optimum temperature and activity temperature. The higher temperatures are better for overall health, digestion and normal behavior - in captivity, indoors. There is a world of difference between temperatures in an aquarium and in a pond. One of the reasons that turtles become active in the early spring when water temperatures are still very low is that the water temperatures are not low enough to allow them to continue hibernating.  

At very low temperatures turtles slow down, stop feeding and hibernate. BUT as the temperature rises their metabolic rate rises as well, while it still is too cold for normal activity it is too warm to hibernate, they need to breathe. Add this in with the increased duration of light and they develop an urge to bask and further raise their body temperatures. 

The water temperature could be 60, the air 70, but by basking the turtle can get his temperature up into the range where normal physiological functions occur.  In addition to the above it does get a bit more complex even than just a few degrees, the temperature will force an animal into or out of hibernation but there are also internal clocks that help animals prepare for things like hibernation, migration and so on.  In an experiment at a Midwestern University they raised two species of birds for 8 years in a controlled environment. Both species went through their summer and winter molts - right on schedule - even though they were given 10 hours of light and 14 hours of dark for the entire 8 years

6: Aquatic  turtle ova are designed to tolerate very damp conditions and will often hatch even if submerged up to 24-36 hours. If found soon enough eggs that are laid in the water CAN hatch. It is a hit or miss proposition but it can happen, I can not stress strongly enough that any intact egg found should be incubated. I once had a Leopard tortoise lay in the water and the egg, found at least an hour later did hatch out. (Chris Tabaka DVM and Darrell Senneke)

7: It  is possible that the turtle is just "tasting" the gravel and spitting it back out but it is also possible that it is, indeed, eating it. This is something that is considered "normal" behavior - but no - you do not want this to happen to extremes.  While water turtles seldom develop impactions from gravel, tortoises can suffer from this. The thinking is that turtles and tortoises experience a normal calcium "hunger" in the wild. For this reason when they come upon gravel - especially white gravel - they eat some of it. In the wild the turtle spends a great deal of time looking for food and in bare areas with a lot of gravel there is not a lot of food to be found and they avoid such areas as they are vulnerable there so this does not present a problem. 

In an aquarium with a gravel bottom and regular feedings this can be a problem though as the turtle is no longer spending time looking for food but is still "wired" to a calcium hunger. On very rare occasions the animal can become impacted with gravel causing big problems if it does not pass through the digestive system. I have seen tortoises defecate gravel for three weeks after being removed from locations where they engaged in consuming gravel. Another possibility is that the turtle is trying to eat algae off the rocks, if this results in ingestion of the gravel it still is to be avoided.

If you are concerned with this I would replace the gravel with a larger size stone too large to swallow, or remove the gravel entirely (easier to clean the habitat that way) and avoid the problem prior to it becoming a problem. Another thing you can do is supplying some cuttlebone for the animal to provide it an alternative to chew on for its calcium.

8:  (Update -- Kwangtung River Turtle  is now in the care sheet library)  While we do have care sheets for over 50 species on the web site, that species is presently not one of them. We will add that species to the list of “to do” care sheets.  Kwangtung River turtles (Chinemys nigricans) are very similar to Reeve’s turtles (Chinemys reevesii).  I would use the care sheet for that species we have posted on the web site.  The food, environment and temperature requirements are all very similar. Please be aware that although they appear very similar as hatchlings, and the care is similar,  that Kwangtungs get much larger, especially the females which can reach 12 inches. You will need to provide a suitably large habitat for them as they mature.

9: In my experience the best grass hay for sulcata is the worst hay you can buy, what we call ditch grass in my part of the world. (this is assuming it is free of roadside trash, pesticides and so on)  This is a mixture of everything that grows on the edge of the field and while it's not in demand for horses it makes a great, varied, diet for tortoises. 

Of the other types I know of the second choice would be orchard grass, then Timothy hay if you cannot get either of the others above. I would not use alfalfa hay unless that was a last resort as it is high in protein.

Some feed stores also sell different "cuttings", so you could possibly be offered, "grass hay - third cutting" and so on. After a field is cut, grass grows back with more leaf and less stem so first and second cuttings have more fiber than later cuttings. Also by fall, the temperature is much cooler so the hay tends to grow slower than in the hot summer months, and that leads to higher starch, sugar and protein content in the plant and less fiber. The later the cut, as a general rule, the greater the Crude Protein (CP) and lower the fiber. First and second cuts are recommended, especially in areas that might see six or seven cuts a year. As far as alfalfa goes, it is tough to get the protein low, unless it is a mixed or poor stand.

So given a wide choice - I would get first cut Orchard or ditch grass hay.

Please be aware that very young G. sulcata may not take rapidly to hay and it must be mixed in with their leafier foods. Over time they will accept it easier.

10: While your initial temperature was too high I think that it sounds like it is too dry for them.  Normally eggs that have been overheated still look fine, as if they are fully pressurized. Put them in a substrate of 1-1 vermiculite to water (by weight) in a covered Tupperware container or a margarine tub.  The wrinkles and indentations should disappear as the egg rehydrate. This does not mean that they are fine as the heightened temperature could have hurt them – only time  will tell on that count. 

11: It is illegal to sell turtles under 4 inches long but many dealers get around this by officially selling them for "educational or research" purposes.  I tend to be somewhat divided on this issue as selling hatchlings promotes more captive breeding and results also in less selling of wild caught animals. I view it on a case-by-case basis.  Supposedly the law is there as a protection of children against salmonella,  interesting that the United States officially has no problem with our red ear slider farms selling hatchlings over seas every year though. 

In the case you sited above I had no problem deciding on a viewpoint though.  Not only was he blatantly trying to get around the law by giving the turtles away for free if you bought his kit (which means that he knows the law) BUT also the kit was totally inappropriate for the animals in question (or any others). His care information was also erroneous. He was correct about one thing.  He stated that if the animals were kept in that setup they would not grow. This is true because they would be dead within a month or two.

12: What kind of turtle or tortoise is best for a person depends a great deal on their specific situation. There is no single species that is perfect for everyone. I will give you some ideas later in this note based on various areas people live and habitats they can offer but first I would strongly advise you to search the internet and learn about the various species, their needs and care.

Another piece of advice would be to get a captive born animal. While these usually cost more than wild caught ones, in the long run they often are much cheaper. Wild caught animals almost always need some sort of veterinary assistance, a captive animal is much healthier and also more used to people. A turtle that hides all the time is a fairly boring pet.

Please feel free to search our website at  for care requirements and also take a look in our links section for access to over one hundred and twenty other sites.

So on to the turtles and tortoises:

If you live in Arizona and have access to a large secure yard I would not hesitate to suggest an African Spurred tortoise, Geochelone sulcata. These are hardy, very personable and also fairly inexpensive. BUT - they rapidly get HUGE. If you need to keep it indoors these delightful animals can soon become a burden. They are much too large to think of as a first turtle or tortoise in the North without very expensive and very large setups.

A better tortoise for the North would be a Redfoot, Geochelone carbonaria, which would only get 14 - 16 inches or so long. They need fairly high humidity but are fairly easy to care for assuming you can provide a good habitat. Other possible tortoises are Hermann's tortoises, Testudo hermanni, which would remain less than 8 inches, or a Russian tortoise, Testudo horsefieldii, which is even a bit smaller and also a good pet if you can find a captive born one.

Water turtles can be excellent pets as well if one is willing to pay a bit more for the setups as they must have clean water at all times and proper lighting as well as a basking area. My  suggestions for a water turtle would be either a Red Eared Slider, Trachemys scripta elegans, Yellow Bellied slider, Trachemys scripta scripta or a Map turtle, Graptemys geographica. Again I strongly suggest getting a captive born animal. All three of these species would be fairly inexpensive. Red Eared Sliders can get quite large, up to 10 inches, and would be best where they could be kept eventually in a pond. Yellow Bellied sliders stay somewhat smaller and require the same care Map turtles stay even smaller yet, especially the males, and would be my choice if they were to be kept in a tank. Of course the larger the tank the easier it is to keep clean and the better it is for the turtle.

Though they are indeed beautiful animals I would not suggest a Box Turtle, Terrapene carolina for a beginner. They require somewhat specialized care and can be difficult to keep - especially indoors.

I hope the above has helped. Once again I remind you, the very most important thing is to research this before you get the animal. Doing this will save you many headaches.

13: If a wild turtle lays eggs in your garden,  if at all possible they should be left to incubate where they were laid. In order to protect them from predators and accidental crushing a chicken wire basket can be placed over them and weighted to keep out animals. Water the garden as you would normally. For temperate climate zone turtles you can expect to find hatchlings between 55 and 90 days after laying. If they are aquatic turtles release them in very shallow water with heavy plant cover. If they are terrestrial release them in an area along the edge of a woods or some other wild area with a lot of ground cover that does not get disturbed.      

14: The white droppings frequently seen are commonly called urates. This is concentrated uric acid and the resulting salts.   Uric acid comes from the breakdown of certain food products, particularly protein. Occasionally people think that this is a result of excess calcium - this is not so.  Seeing urates occasionally is no cause for alarm, seeing them at every soaking can be an indication of malnutrition (in this case the animal is living off its own body, metabolizing its own muscle)   In certain cases of long term low level dehydration these urates can form bladder stones instead of passing which can block the cloaca and cause death unless treated.   It is important to remember that even desert tortoises should have access to a shallow pan of water at all times.

15: This is a very common question.  Salmonella is present nearly everywhere and many more cases are caused by improperly cooked chicken, FAR more,  than are caused by turtles or tortoises.  Most, if not all, reptiles carry Salmonella bacteria and occasionally shed these bacteria.  Salmonella bacteria can cause serious illness in people.

Fortunately the spread of Salmonella bacteria from reptiles to humans can be easily prevented by using the following precautions:

16: We tend to overfeed or turtles and tortoises. In the wild they have to hunt for their food resulting in a lot of energy being expended in the process. This is in contrast to us delivering their food right in front of their noses. For hatchlings I tend to feed on a daily basis, the amount they will eat in less than a half hour. Once they are a couple years old I reduce this to every other day. I can not stress strongly enough that the acquisition of an accurate balance or scale is important. You re looking for a steady weight gain. Weigh the animal at the same part of it's schedule (just before feeding is a goods time)  and look for general trends, one days increase or drop in weight are not as important as the general trend.

17: Turtles need to bask to get their body temperature up to the point where they can properly metabolize food and maintain activity. If the ambient temperature is low they will bask a lot, if you have a high temperature in the environment it will be a smaller amount of time spent basking. A regular light bulb is sufficient for basking purposes. Position it so that the surface of the dry basking spot is about 90 degrees F ( 32 C)

18: It  is very important that this is a fluorescent bulb that is marketed as providing UVB.  A UVB source is necessary for Vitamin D3 syntheses (needed in calcium metabolism).   If a fluorescent light is positioned so that it is about 6 inches (15 cm)  above the animal while basking that should be ok, replace the bulb at least yearly. Be aware that no bulb will be as effective as sunlight in supplying UVB  to your animal. If preferred to this lighting arrangement a Mercury vapor bulb may be used that fulfills both basking warmth and UVB requirements.

19: This is answer 19.

20: This is answer 20.

21: This is answer 21.

22: This is answer 22.

23: This is answer 23.

24: This is answer 24.

25: This is answer 25.

26: This is answer 26.

27: This is answer 27.

28: This is answer 28.

29: This is answer 29.

30: This is answer 30.

Copyright 2003 WCT©

  Fauna Top Sites Click Here to Visit!    Exotic Pet Sites  Click Here to Visit!   Click Here to Visit!                  

WCT Webmaster

Hit Counter