Murray River Turtle
(Photograph courtesy of Australian Reptile Park)
General information General information
About 250 species of tortoises and turtles occur throughout the world and of these about 16 are
Australian. These creatures are grouped in the reptile order Chelonia and are distinguished from all
other reptiles by several unique features. Amongst these is the strongly armoured carapace which is
connected at the sides with the plastron below (this is the tortoise’s ‘shell’).
The names tortoise and turtle have been inconsistently used. In America, a third name ‘terrapin’ (of Red Indian origin) is often applied to the freshwater tortoises and the work tortoise is often used to
describe only those species which live only on the land. These are usually heavily armoured, highly
domed and have a vegetarian diet. Sometimes you may see the word terrapin used in Australia, but
generally the word tortoise is applied to all freshwater species with clawed, webbed feet and the word turtle is used for the large marine species with feet shaped like paddles.
Tortoises as pets Tortoises as pets
Tortoises are popular pets and keeping them can be both interesting and educational, but sadly, many
small tortoises die in captivity because their owners are ignorant of their needs. It is important when
purchasing a tortoise to obtain information on appropriate care to ensure its health and well-being.
Baby tortoises are usually available in pet shops during summer. These are bred in captivity and not
taken from the wild. Many people wrongly believe that water tortoises will eliminate garden pests.
Young tortoises breathe air from the atmosphere and although they spend a lot of time under water,
they must be able to come to the surface for air. They also need to be able to come out of the water to
sunbake. In the wild, most young tortoises spend their time in shallow water amongst reeds where
they are able to leave the water in comparative safety. How you house your pet tortoise will be
dependant upon your circumstances but an aquarium or a pond/ waterhole is required.
A normal water filled aquarium will service as a home for a young tortoise, but unless it is able to
climb out onto dry land it is likely to tire and drown. The opposite, a dry aquarium will rapidly cause
the tortoise to dehydrate and die.
Many pet shops and aquarium shops sell shallow aquariums which are specifically designed with a
cross piece of glass at the base to allow both dry land and a pond to be simulated in the one aquarium.
A large one will allow for the pond, bog plants, rocky outcrops, sand and other pond life. These
additions make the display much more interesting to both the tortoise and its owner. Unfortunately,
many pet tortoises die of neglect after the initial enthusiasm of the owner wears off.
Plants and other pond life do increase the possibility of the environmental balance being upset and may result in the need for a lot of additional care, however, they can act as a warning device to signal overheating, stagnant water etc.
If you cannot find a tortoise aquarium a normal aquarium can be converted, using silicon glue, into one suitable for a tortoise. Glass divisions can be made or glass trays fixed to the side or rear to make small plant boxes at water level and to separate sand from water. The glass will need to be professionally cut and finished by a tradesman so there are no sharp edges. Alternatively, place a large rock in the aquarium so the tortoise can climb out of the water.
Tortoises can tolerate a wide temperature range and no special temperature controls are required but make certain the cage is not placed in direct summer sun and become excessively hot, or placed in a dark corner completely shut off from any sunlight. A healthy plant growth usually indicates an aquarium is suitably located. A standard aquarium filter can be used to help keep the water clean and provide some movement of surface water which will help to improve the absorption of oxygen into the water. Although your tortoises comes to the surface to breathe it is preferable to have it living in a fresh rather than stagnant environment and the plants and other pond organisms will keep healthier too.
If you are keeping your tortoise outside and not in an aquarium, a pond or water-hole is an absolute must. If it is not possible to provide a pond, a baby’s bath or a large basin may be sunk into the ground until flush with the surface. An old cement trough with the division removed is also ideal if it is sunk into the ground. Ideally, a pet tortoise should be kept in a pool enclosed with some dry ground upon which it can crawl when it feels like doing so. Remember to put a ramp or large stones against the side of the pond or tub so that the tortoise may use it to climb out.
Feeding and care Feeding and care
Unlike mammals or birds, which require daily feeding, adult tortoises can survive long fasts and live well on feeding once or twice a week throughout the warmer months. Throughout most of South Australia tortoises kept outside in winter will eat no food at all. Very small baby hatchling tortoises should be fed every day. Always feed tortoises in the water and not on dry land. Fresh meat finely cut into very small pieces and some purchased fish foods (as a supplement) make a suitable diet. Do not overfeed as surplus food will deteriorate rapidly and foul the water. If your new baby tortoise will not eat try offering tiny pieces of meat on the end of a fine feeding wire or piece of thick stiff fishing line about 16cm long. This enables you to move the meat about in front of the tortoise so that he will be stimulated by the movement into snapping at the food.
A backyard pond or old bucket may attract mosquito larvae or other aquatic life such as Daphnia. These will be appreciated by your tortoise as will earthworms and certain other live food eg. grubs and meal worms. Do not feed dead flies, which have been killed by fly spray or any other garden pest, which may have been sprayed with insecticide. Never feed cooked or stale meat and always remove uneaten food. Enquire from your supplier which water plants your tortoise may consider as a tasty delicacy and try to provide a selection in your aquarium or pond.
Hibernation Hibernation The above concerns the active life of the tortoise. Equally important is its inactive life – the time
when it hibernates. During this period of torpor (inactivity) the temperature of the tortoises is considerably lowered and the heartbeat slows. Many tortoises hibernate in the water, burying themselves in the muddy bottom, but others wish to leave the water and hide under sand, dead leaves, a bush or some other ground cover. If a pond has been provided in the garden and its floor is muddy, it is safe to leave matters to the tortoises, provided it can comfortably bury itself, right away from frosts, it can be left there to hibernate. Alternatively, a place to hibernate can be provided and a well ventilated box can be used for this. It must be rat proof and should be filled with hay and kept in a dry shed in a place where it cannot be knocked over.
Hibernation begins in late autumn, and if your tortoises does not have its own pond with a muddy floor or a nice warm area with lots of bushes and leaves, you should place it in the specially prepared
box. Do not place it in the box if it is still quite active – wait until it is obvious that it is becoming
torpid or appears to be looking for a place to hibernate. The box should be checked regularly once the cold weather eases and the warmer weather starts, to see if the tortoises is awake (do not deliberately wake it). In spring tortoises quite dramatically come ‘alive’ again after their long sleep. Their heart beat quickens and you must transfer them back to their pool or aquarium and provide them with food.
Breeding Breeding Tortoises lay eggs which they deposit in a hole they have dug in the ground. The hole is carefully filled in to cover the eggs and hide the site from predators. If you have a number of tortoises of both sexes you may be lucky enough to have them breed. If you want them to breed you will have to provide a suitable environment for them to do so, with lots of soft dirt, leaves and shrubs.
Handling Handling Animals suffer from stress if incorrectly or excessively handled. Reptiles are often subjected to more abuse in this way than many other types of fauna. A bird is regarded as delicate, a mammal usually cries out in a manner they may communicate discomfort or fear, but reptiles are ‘cold blooded’. This term simply means that the reptile is not capable of controlling its body temperature by chemical means and must rely on the its physical environment to maintain homeostatic functions. In other words, to bet itself warm when it is cold, it absorbs heat from the sun by sunning itself and to lower its temperature when the weather is hot it must seek shade from excessive heat. ‘Cold blooded’ does not, as some people believe, have anything to do with the animal’s feelings. Reptiles, including tortoises, suffer pain, fear and stress and must be handled at all times as sensitive living things, not toys.
You should familiarise yourself with any health problems tortoises may be prone to and know the symptoms. Check your pet and its environment daily for signs of trouble – prevention is always better
than cure. Remember, water quality and correct feeding are the main essentials in keeping a tortoises
happy and healthy. Remember too, that although a tortoise may spend a large part of its life in water, one that cannot get access to dry land can develop fungal skin conditions.
Warning Warning NEVER bore a hold in the shell to pass a string through for the purpose of tethering the tortoises. Using a small fence will effectively solve the problem of a straying pet.
Now that you have read this advice, please give serious thought to all the requirements of keeping a tortoise as a pet and then to give consideration as to whether a tortoise is actually the most suitable pet for you to keep. So many tortoises die from starvation, general neglect and even from accidents on the road after they have been left to wander, that we ask you to very seriously read and digest the information given and ask yourself honestly if you are willing, physically and financially to provide all that is required to keep these interesting little reptiles not just alive, but also healthy and happy.
Information courtesy of Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SA) Inc.