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The African Helmeted Turtle (Crocodile Turtle)

The African helmeted turtle goes by many names such as the African side-necked turtle, the crocodile turtle, and the marsh terrapin. As a semi aquatic species, African helmeted turtles prefer to spend most of their time in freshwater swamps, lakes, dams, and pans. These turtles are popular pets all over the world because of their unusual head tucking behavior.

African Helmeted Turtle Facts and Information

Wild African helmeted turtles can be found throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, from Ghana in West Africa to as far south as Cape Town in South Africa. They have even be found in Southern Yemen and Madagascar.

The Pelomedusa subrufa (biological name of the African helmeted turtle) is a species of the Pleurodira suborder and belong to the family Pelomedusidae.

Crocodile turtles as they are commonly known are small turtles and hardly grow over 8 inches/ 20 cm in straight carapace length. The largest recorded had a length of 12.8 inches / 32.6 cm.

The shell of this turtle species is brown or black. The top of their limbs and tail are grayish brown while their undersides are yellowish. They have big round eyes and a mouth that is permanently fixed into a smiling shape giving the impression that they are always happy.

Distinguishing features between male and females include tail length and shell width. Males have long tails, while females have short tails. Also, females have broader shells than males do.

When this species of turtle finds themselves on their back, they can right themselves using their long muscular necks.

African Helmeted Turtle Lifespan

The crocodile turtle can live up to 50 years.

African Helmeted Turtle (Pelomedusa subrufa)

African Helmeted Turtle Diet

Like most turtles, Marsh terrapins are omnivores and only eat under-water. They have been known to hurt and kill larger preys like doves. They will eat any food found in their habitat. This includes fish, earthworms, snails, carrions, plants, and insects.

When kept as pets, owners can feed them dried foods such as meat protein and shrimp. Brown crickets, chicks, mice, salmon, dubia cockroaches, and black crickets are all foods owners can feed them.

It is advisable to feed younger crocodile turtles more protein. Edible plants that they eat include foods such as collard greens, spinach, red-leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, dandelions, and even mixed vegetables.

They will also eat turtle pudding/gelatin. This contains all the nutrients they need to be healthy. Commercially prepared turtle diets such as Mazuri Aquatic Turtle Diet, Reptomin Floating Food Sticks, and Rep-Cal Maintenance Formula Box Turtle Food with Fruit are also practical options since they are convenient.

As these turtles will only feed in water, their tank can get messy. One way to prevent this is to feed them in a separate container. In addition to that, you should also use a tank filter. You can check out our review of turtle tank filters here.

You can feed adult turtles every other day and younglings twice a day.

If they refuse to eat, you can introduce live prey such as crickets, and mice. Their predatory instinct usually drives them to feed on live food. Once they start feeding, you can introduce other types of foods.

African Helmeted Turtle Habitat

African Helmeted Turtle

In the wild, crocodile turtles prefer stagnant freshwater bodies. They are known to leave their water bodies and embark on long journeys during the rainy season. They also bury themselves in the ground for months, even years if nearby water bodies dry up, and there are no rains.

You can decide to keep the African helmeted turtle outdoors if the climate at your end is warm. If not, it’s best to keep them indoors, where you can easily regulate the temperature.

To properly care for this species, you need a tank that can hold 40 gallons of water. The water in the tank should be about 300 mm high (or one and a half their carapace length). This ensures that they can easily and quickly surface to breath.

These turtles are baskers, and you will need to provide a platform upon which they can bask. Because of their shy nature, basking areas for this species needs to have visual barriers and hiding spots.

The basking area needs to be at the same level as the water in the tank and must have a romp that they can use when getting in and out of water.

Since the African helmeted turtles originate from the tropics, the temperate of their tanks need to be warm. The water temperature should be between 80 and 83 degrees while the temperature of the basking site should be between 90 and 95 degrees.

You need to provide a basking light over the basking site. A good artificial heating UVB light should warm up the basking stop as well as provide the turtle with the needed rays for synthesizing vitamin D3. The UVB light bulb should be changed every 9 months.

Finally, a pump and water filter is necessary to keep the tank clean. Since crocodile turtles prefer stagnant water, the filter and pump system must always be on a low flow setting.

You should replace a third of the tank water every week. When replacing the water in the tank ensure that temperature is the same as the water already in the tank.

African Helmeted Turtle Breeding

African Helmeted Turtle

The African helmeted turtles do not have a mating season although the female usually lay eggs from late spring to early summer. This female normally lays two to ten eggs. Marsh terrapins nests once a year.

African Helmeted Turtle Predation

Marsh terrapins are usually predators in their natural habitat. They will aggressively hunt small aquatic creatures for food. They have been known to work together to take down large preys such as birds. Birds, snakes, and mammals usually feed on the eggs and younglings of these turtles.

African Helmeted Turtle Endangerment

The crocodile turtle isn’t endangered. According to the IUCN, these species are successful, common and under no threat.

African Helmeted Turtle Overview Video

Common Questions

What is an interesting fact about the African helmeted turtle?

An interesting fact about the African helmeted turtle is that they can right themselves using their long muscular necks when they find themselves on their back.

How do you feed an African helmeted turtle?

You feed an African helmeted turtle with various foods such as fish, earthworms, snails, carrions, plants, and insects. In captivity, they can be fed with meat protein, shrimp, brown crickets, chicks, mice, salmon, dubia cockroaches, and black crickets. They will only eat underwater, and it is advisable to feed them in a separate container to keep their tank clean.

Are African helmeted turtles endangered?

No, African helmeted turtles are not endangered. According to the IUCN, these species are successful, common, and under no threat.


Raising of the African helmeted turtle is best done by intermediate and experienced turtle keepers. They require a lot of attention and warmth to flourish.

While they usually won’t attack humans, they can be aggressive towards other creatures including fellow African helmeted turtles. In all, this smiling turtle is a delight to have as a pet when properly cared for.

So, over to you! What do you think? Do you have one? Are you planning to get one? Let me know in the comments below!

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Sheila Yurchak

Wednesday 9th of August 2023

Thanks for the information. I have one and named him Mr. Personality because he is so low key and doesn’t interact much with me. I was wondering if he might be depressed or lonely. Sometimes he won’t eat dry food. He does like live guppies and tadpoles but I find that unnerving.


Tuesday 20th of August 2019

Have African Helmeted Turtle. Need to find good home for Patty. Patty was left to me by son. Approaching age of 70. Need to find new home.