Species group: African Side-Necked Turtles
Other common names: African Helmeted Turtle
Scientific name: Pelomedusa subrufa
The Helmeted Turtle has one of the widest ranges of any African turtle, being found from Yemen clear across the continent to Nigeria and south to South Africa. It also occurs on Madagascar. Three subspecies have been described. This semi-aquatic turtle is also highly adaptable, and able to survive in temporary water holes, canals, flooded grasslands, marshes, creeks and farm ponds. Helmeted Turtles burrow into the mud and aestivate (become dormant) or travel across land when their habitats dry out.
Appearance / health:
These broad, oval-shaped turtles average 6-8 inches in length, although some individuals may reach 12 inches. The carapace can be olive, tan or brown in color.
Behavior / temperament:
Helmeted Turtles adjust to captivity quickly, but some individuals remain shy, especially when basking, for some time. Nearly all will rush over for food when you approach the aquarium. Stressed animals will release musk, but most take short periods of gentle handling in stride. All turtles are capable of administering powerful bites and scratches when frightened, and must be handled carefully.
Helmeted Turtles spend most of their lives in water, but are more “bottom crawlers” than swimmers. The water in their aquarium should be of a depth that allows the turtle to breath while it is standing on the bottom of the tank (i.e. without having to swim to the surface). The aquarium should be equipped with a basking site, UVB bulb, heater, and powerful filtration. A 30-55 gallon aquarium will suit an average adult. Bare-bottomed aquariums are best, as gravel greatly complicates cleaning. Ambient water temperature: 80-82 F; Basking temperature: 90-95 F
Turtles are messy feeders, and quickly foul even well-filtered aquariums. Removing your pets to a plastic storage container for feeding will lessen the filter’s workload and help to maintain good water quality. Partial water changes (i.e. 50 % weekly) are also very useful. Filters designed specifically for turtles, if serviced regularly, are usually preferable to those marketed for use with tropical fish. Some folks find it easier to maintain their aquatic turtles in plastic storage containers that can easily be emptied and rinsed.
Wild Helmeted Turtles have several interesting feeding behaviors, including “un-turtle-like” mass attacks on birds drinking at the water’s edge! Individuals inhabiting savanna water holes have been observed to pull ticks from the skin of rhinos. Their appetites know no bounds…fish, tadpoles, snails, carrion, insects, frogs and snakes are all taken with equal relish. Pets should be offered a diet comprised largely of whole animals such as earthworms, snails, pre-killed pink mice, crayfish, prawn, minnows and shiners. Goldfish should be used sparingly, if at all, as a steady goldfish diet has been linked to kidney and liver disorders in other turtle species. Super mealworms, roaches, crickets and other insects can be used to add variety to the diet. A high quality commercial turtle chow can comprise up to 50% of the diet.
Gravid (egg-bearing) females usually become restless and may refuse food. They should be removed to a large container (i.e. 5x the length and width of the turtle) provisioned with 6-8 inches of slightly moist soil and sand. Gravid females that do not nest should be seen by a veterinarian as egg retention always leads to a fatal infection (egg peritonitis). The 12-42 eggs may be incubated in moist vermiculite at 82-85 F for 70-90 days.
Written by Frank Indiviglio