Spiny Turtle

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Species group:

Scientific name: Heosemys spinosa

The basics:
The Spiny Turtle is aptly-named, and certainly one of the most unusual of all turtles in appearance. Bearing shells ringed in spines, they have been described as “walking pincushions” and “mobile throwing stars”. Spiny Turtles are also extremely responsive pets - similar in that regard to American Box Turtles – and are beginning to get more attention from breeders. Their range extends from Myanmar and southern Thailand to Sumatra, Borneo and the Philippines. Within that large area, however, this secretive turtle is limited to specific habitats. It is only found in and near clear, shallow streams that flow through undisturbed mountainous forests. Collection for the food and medicinal trades and habitat loss has devastated wild populations, so please make sure to purchase only captive-bred individuals.

Appearance / health:
The eye-catching carapace, which is almost round in outline, bears long, pointed projections all along its edge. These are especially well-developed in youngsters, and often wear down with age. The shell’s coloration varies from yellowish to dark brown, with some individuals being an eye-catching mahogany in color. Adults average 8-10 inches in length.

Behavior / temperament:
Although initially shy, Spiny Turtles adjust to captivity quickly, and soon learn to feed from the hand. Many owners compare them to American Wood and Box Turtles in responsiveness and longevity. Males often harass females with mating attempts, and may stress or bite them in the process; males cannot be kept together, as they will usually fight.

Hatchlings may be raised in aquariums that are equally split between land and water areas. The water in a hatchling’s aquarium should be of a depth that allows the turtle to reach the surface with its head without needing to swim, i.e. 1-2 inches. The aquarium should be equipped with an easily-accessed basking site, UVB bulb, water heater and floating plastic or live plants under which the shy youngsters can hide. Bare-bottomed aquariums are preferable, as gravel greatly complicates cleaning. Adults do best in custom-made enclosures that measure at least 3’ x 4’ in area; outdoor maintenance is ideal when weather permits. Plastic-based rabbit cages and cattle troughs can also be modified as turtle homes. A pool of shallow water should occupy approximately half of the cage’s area. Suitable hiding spots are important to the well-being of pet turtles; these include deep substrates into which your turtles can burrow and commercial turtle huts. Cypress bark and similar commercial products, or a mix of topsoil, peat and sphagnum moss, may be used as a substrate. Ambient temperature: 76-82 F; Basking temperature: 86 F. UVB exposure is essential.

Turtles are messy feeders, and quickly foul swimming and drinking water. Removing your pets to a plastic storage container for feeding is a good way to lessen cleaning chores. Some folks find it easier to maintain their semi-aquatic turtles in plastic storage containers that can easily be emptied and rinsed.

Spiny Turtles have not been well-studied in the wild, but appear to feed mainly upon fruits and vegetables; insects and other invertebrates may be taken on occasion. Pets should be offered mixed salads containing berries, kale, tomatoes, dandelion, yams, apples, pears, squash, mushrooms, carrots and other produce. Whole animals such as earthworms, snails, crickets and other insects, minnows, and an occasional pre-killed pink mouse should also be offered. A high quality commercial turtle chow, if accepted, can comprise up to 50% of the diet. The calcium requirements of Spiny Turtles, especially growing youngsters and gravid females, are quite high. All foods (other than whole fish and commercial pellets) should be powdered with a reptile calcium supplement. A cuttlebone may also be left in the cage. Vitamin/mineral supplements may be used 2-3 times weekly.

Spraying Spiny Turtles with water has stimulated breeding behavior at various times of the year. Only 1-3 unusually large eggs are produced at a time, with 1-3 clutches per year being typical. Females sometimes have difficulty passing their eggs, especially if the diet lacks sufficient calcium. 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).

Written by Frank Indiviglio

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