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How to Care for Your Mud Turtle

How to Care for Your Mud Turtle

The mud turtle (Kinosternon sp.) is a small, semi-aquatic reptile that is quite widespread. Populations can be found in the southeastern US, Mexica, Central America, and the northern half of South America. They prefer shallow, stagnant bodies of fresh water with soft mud or sand bottoms, such as wetlands, swamps, ponds, canals, ditches, etc. They also frequent cattle tanks.

Mud turtles can be as small as 4” or as large as 7”, depending on the species. They have large heads, a slightly pointed snout, slightly flattened shells, 1-2 barbels under the chin, webbed feet, and a slightly hooked upper jaw. Coloring varies according to species, but mud turtles are generally brown to black in color, with a lighter colored plastron. They may also have cream or yellow striping on the head and/or shell.

Mud turtles make good beginner-level pet turtles because they’re generally hardy, and their small size makes them easier to house than other turtles. With good care, they can live up to 50 years or so.

The most common mud turtles in the pet trade are the Three Striped Mud Turtle (Kinosternon baurii) and the Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum).

Note: Mud turtles may be native to the US, but that’s not a reason to take one from the wild if you want one as a pet. If you want a pet mud turtle, purchase one from a breeder or adopt one from a rescue or your local classifieds. Never take reptiles from the wild!

How much space do mud turtles need?

The minimum for appropriately keeping one adult mud turtle is 75 gallons, or roughly 48”L x 18”W x 21”H. This is just the minimum, and providing a larger enclosure is both beneficial and appreciated! 

Mud turtles are known to spend a significant amount of time on land, so it’s best practice to use a Waterland tub or similar instead of an aquarium, so you can provide plenty of land area for roaming around, and muddy soil for burrowing. This also provides a readily-available area of land for females to routine deposit infertile eggs (similar to a chicken).

Water depth should be shallow enough to allow the turtle to breathe from the surface if it stands on its tiptoes from the bottom of the tank, although deeper can be used if you have underwater structures to bring the turtle closer to the surface.

Mud turtles tend to do well when housed outdoors where local climate permits, even if it’s just during part of the year. This is a convenient way to provide your turtle with a generously-sized pond and “free” heating and lighting.

It’s best not to house multiple mud turtles in the same enclosure, as they can be aggressive toward other turtles in their “territory” — this is particularly true for males.

Do mud turtles need UVB?

Mud turtles require regular exposure to high-quality UVB in order to maintain optimal health and wellbeing. Providing UVB lighting to your turtle gives them all of the vitamin D that their body needs, stimulates better appetite and activity, and strengthens the immune system, as well as other benefits. 

The best UVB bulbs for mud turtles are:

  • Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 5.0
  • Arcadia Forest 6%

The UVB bulb should be half the length of the enclosure and housed in a reflective fixture like the Arcadia ProT5 or Vivarium Electronics. Place the lamp close to the heat lamp. If it’s on top of a screen lid, the basking platform should be placed so the top of the turtle’s shell is 6-9” from the lamp. If there is no screen obstruction, the lamp should be placed so the top of the shell is 11-12” below.

UVB bulbs decay over time, so don’t forget to replace your bulb every 12 months to maintain good performance. If you are housing your turtle outdoors in an appropriate climate, supplementary lighting is not required.

It’s also a good idea to provide a strong LED or T5 HO 6500K daylight lamp for additional illumination. This helps better replicate daylight and is also good for any live plants you may be using. “Nighttime” lighting such as colored light bulbs should not be used.

Lights should be on for 14 hours/day during summer and 10 hours/day during winter, with gradual adjustments in-between.

What basking temperatures do mud turtles need?

Mud turtles are ectotherms, which means that they rely on the variable temperatures of their environment to help regulate their metabolism and stay healthy. Although some people will tell you that mud turtles almost never bask, it’s still important to provide an appropriate basking area for the turtle to use as needed.

Temperature gradient:

  • Basking area (air temp) — 86-92°F
  • Water temp — 75-78°F

Measure basking temperature with a digital probe thermometer, and water temperature with a high-quality aquarium thermometer.

A good way to warm the basking area is with a halogen flood heat lamp placed on one side of the enclosure and positioned over the basking area. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective. Increase the wattage if they’re too cool, and use a plug-in lamp dimmer if they’re too warm.

If you need to heat the water, use a high-quality aquarium heater rated for at least the maximum volume of water in the enclosure.

If you are housing your turtle outdoors, supplementary heating should not be required. However, if your area experiences a significant drop in temperature during winter, you will need to make sure your pond is equipped to allow your turtle to hibernate safely, or bring them inside once the weather starts to get colder.

What kind of water maintenance do mud turtles need?

Although mud turtles are somewhat more forgiving about water quality than other species, the water in your enclosure should still be kept clean at all times in order to keep your turtle healthy. The most efficient way to do this is with a combination of excellent filtration and regular water changes.

Aquatic turtles are fairly messy creatures, so you will need a canister-style filter capable of handling at least 2-3x the amount of water in the enclosure. So, if you have an aquarium or pond with 75 gallons of water, you will need a filter rated for at least 150 gallons of water. Don’t settle for the cheapest filter you can find — this is one aspect of your turtle’s enclosure not to skimp on!

Use a low flow aquarium filter designed for fish that prefer stagnant water, as mud turtles don’t like a strong current. If you can’t find something suitable, place a rock or similar directly under the filter’s output to disrupt the current.

Once every 1-2 weeks, remove and replace approximately 30% of the aquarium/pond’s total water volume. This helps minimize buildup of toxic compounds in the water that a filter is unable to resolve. To make the job easier, use a siphon or water pump.

Both indoor and outdoor turtle ponds require filtration and water changes.

What substrate is good for mud turtles?

The land portion of the enclosure should offer 10” of moist, sandy soil for burrowing, particularly if the turtle is being kept outdoors. You can do this with Zoo Med Reptisoil or by mixing your own substrate with approximately 80% clean topsoil and 20% play sand (measured by volume).

Substrate is not required in the aquatic portion of the enclosure, although it does offer a form of enrichment when provided, encouraging natural behaviors. Mud and well rinsed, fine sand make for the best aquatic substrates for mud turtles.

Leaf litter and sphagnum moss can be used both on the land and in the water.

What décor can you use in a mud turtle enclosure?

Aside from the basking area, there are additional ways you can increase the enclosure’s functionality and general attractiveness. Here are some ideas:

  • live/artificial plants
  • driftwood
  • hollow logs
  • terracotta pots

Make sure your turtle has access to places where it can hide from view as needed. Make sure objects with holes or tunnels in them are large enough to accommodate the turtle’s maximum size, as it can drown if it gets stuck!

What do mud turtles eat?

The mud turtles available in the pet trade are omnivores, which means that they need to eat a balanced diet of both plant- and animal-based foods to get the nutrition that they need. However, most of their diet should be animal protein, especially when they’re hatchlings. Here is a general feeding schedule to follow:

Mud turtles <6 months old:

  • protein food or pellets daily

Mud turtles >6 months old:

  • protein food or pellets every other day
  • vegetable food daily (for grazing)

Offer as much animal-based food as your turtle will eat in 5-10 minutes. A portion of chopped/shredded vegetables should be roughly the same size as the turtle’s shell. A portion of pellets should be roughly the same size as the turtle’s head. Beware of overfeeding — if your mud turtle starts to look chubby, reduce the amount of food offered at each feeding.

Animal-based foods for mud turtles: crickets, earthworms, dubia roaches, shrimp/krill, frozen bloodworms, silkworms, snails, grasshoppers, clams, quail eggs, pre-killed feeder fish

Vegetable foods for mud turtles: spirulina algae wafers, duckweed, pond lily, eelgrass, water hyacinth, collard greens, dandelion greens, endive, green leaf lettuce, kale, red leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce 

Pellets for mud turtles: Omega One Juvenile Turtle Pellets, Omega One Adult Turtle Sticks, Tetra ReptoMin, Zoo Med Natural Aquatic Turtle Food, Mazuri Aquatic Turtle Diet

Generally speaking, mud turtles prefer foods that sink to the bottom rather than floating foods. However, they are known to be able to take food while on land.

Do mud turtles like to be handled?

As a general rule, turtles do not like to be handled, and mud turtles will secrete a foul-smelling musk when alarmed. It’s best to keep the handling to a minimum. Keep your fingers toward the rear of the carapace to avoid getting potentially bitten.

If you would like to interact with your turtle, try hand-feeding it with a pair of feeding tongs.

*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please do further research with high-quality sources to obtain additional information on caring for this species.

"Kinosternon subrubrum hippocrepis (Mississippi Mud Turtle)" by Andrew Hoffman is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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