The African Sideneck turtle is one of the few types of pet turtle that is as fun to own as it is cute.
These adorable aquatic turtles are active and inquisitive. Once they have overcome their shyness, they will often watch you while they constantly swim and move around their tanks.
Although best kept as display animals rather than being handled, these terrific turtles can bring hours of amusement to dedicated beginner or intermediate keepers. An aquarium setup is needed with a small terrestrial area for basking.
In this African Sideneck turtle care guide, we’ll take a deep dive into the housing and dietary needs of these enjoyable reptiles.
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African Sideneck Turtle Facts
- Experience level: Beginner to Intermediate
- Family: Pelomedusidae
- Scientific name: Pelusios castaneus
- Other names: African Side-necked turtle, West African Mud turtle
- Adult Male Size: 7 to 10 inches (17.8 to 25.4 cm)
- Adult Female Size: 8 to 12 inches (20.3 to 30.5 cm)
- Average Lifespan: 25 to 50 years
- Average Price Range: $35 to $110
African Sideneck turtles are incapable of pulling their heads all the way into their shells to defend themselves.
This is partially due to their abnormally long necks. Their name also comes from the way they use the edge of their carapace to tuck their head into the gap.
When this turtle tucks itself inside, you can see part of its long neck, earning them the “Sideneck” name.
This long neck gives this turtle a few distinct advantages. Unlike most other species of turtle, African Sideneck turtles can right themselves if they get flipped on their back. They do this by utilizing their strong, muscular neck to leverage themselves onto their feet.
The long neck also helps them to catch food. With this reach advantage, they can often snatch food up while staying hidden.
The African Sideneck turtle has an interesting nickname. Sometimes they are called crocodile turtles.
They get this name because in the wild, where there are large communities of African Sideneck turtles they can attack as a group.
Sometimes they will even attack waterfowl by dragging them underwater. The noise can get so great when these turtles scratch with their claws and bite prey, it looks like a crocodile attack.
African Sideneck turtles sometimes get mixed up with African Helmeted turtles (Pelomedusa subrufa.) Both species share a similar appearance and both names are often used interchangeably.
Although they are different species, both are part of the Pelomedusidae family.
What does an African Sideneck turtle look like?
African Sideneck turtles have gray underbellies with black accents and relatively flat shells that are dark green or brown.
The most distinguishing feature of these turtles is their permanent grins. This gives them a cute, endearing appearance, and you can help but smile back when you see them.
On the top of their olive-green heads, they have black, mottled markings. Two flesh, sensory barbels extend from their chins. They also have surprisingly long claws that help them to climb driftwood and rocks.
How big do African Sideneck turtles get?
African Sideneck turtles can grow quite large. Males reach an average length of between 7 and 10 inches. Females are typically larger, measuring between 8 and 12 inches on average.
Where do African Sideneck turtles live?
African Sideneck turtles are found in Western regions of Sub-Saharan Africa such as Angola, the Congo, Ghana, Senegal, and Sierra Leone.
They make their home in ponds, lakes, and rivers with muddy bottoms. When these bodies of water begin to dry up, the turtles will bury themselves in the mud and aestivate.
Aestivating is the action some amphibians, fish, and reptiles take to survive extremely dry hot periods. Think hibernation or brumation except it’s during the blazing summer.
The African Sideneck turtle will enter a period of dormancy, and reduced metabolism while it’s buried in the mud. Once the rains return and the devastating temperatures have relented, the turtle will become active once again.
What kind of habitat do African Sideneck turtles need?
African Sideneck turtles require an aquatic habitat. They need plenty of room to swim and an area where they can bask and dry off on occasion.
This habitat can be created indoors or out, but these turtles can’t handle cold temperatures. Anything under 70 degrees Fahrenheit can cause health issues.
How long do African Sideneck turtles live in captivity?
These enjoyable turtles are quite long-lived and have a captive lifespan of between 25 and 50 years when given ideal conditions and care.
What do African Sideneck turtles eat?
Like most aquatic turtles, African Sideneck turtles are omnivorous. In the younger stages of their lives, they consume a mostly carnivorous diet.
As they mature into adults, they consume more vegetation. Most of their adult diet consists of insects, amphibians, mollusks, and fish, but they will also eat some aquatic plants.
How do African Sideneck turtles breed?
African Sideneck turtles nest and lay eggs during the dry season sometimes twice a year. The females will bury themselves deep in the mud before laying their clutch.
Scientists think this is to help protect the eggs from monitor lizards and other egg-eating animals, and to protect them from the hot desert sun.
They lay between six and 18 eggs per clutch. These eggs tend to hatch during the rainy season when more food and protection (babies can hide in the mud at the bottom of the body of water) are available.
Across various parts of the African Sideneck turtle’s range, the exact timing of these periods can vary. Consequently, the exact nesting and hatching periods vary in different regions as well, as the turtles are dependent on the rainy seasons.
What predators do African Sideneck turtles face?
African Sideneck turtles don’t face many regular predators and are protected by their shells. Their main predators are humans and crocodiles.
Babies are a different matter though as they can become food for anything bigger than they are. They have a defense mechanism other than their shells which helps them to survive. African Sideneck turtles have musk glands that produce a foul smell and bad taste to anything thinking to make these turtles an appetizer.
In many countries where these reptiles are native, humans will hunt them for their meat. Some cultures also use African Sideneck turtles in traditional medicine.
African Sideneck Turtle Endangerment
These turtles have been listed as least concern on the IUCN red list since 1996 and they are doing very well in the wild. With the rise of domesticated animals such as cattle in Africa, the populations of African Sideneck turtles have increased.
People have made more ponds and dammed off rivers and streams for their livestock to drink. This has made more habitat areas for the turtles and their populations are no longer threatened.
African Sideneck Turtle Care sheet
Because they are aquatic turtles, African Sideneck turtles need a habitat that provides a lot of water for their active lifestyle. An individual turtle needs a 75-gallon tank. They need a larger size enclosure because they can get pretty big.
The tank you choose also needs to be longer or wider than it is tall. These turtles prefer a shallow enclosure.
It’s recommended that the water be 1.5 times as deep as your turtle is long. For a 12-inch turtle, the water depth should be around 18 inches.
Groups of African Sideneck turtles can be housed together, but keep males separate to avoid aggression during the natural breeding season. It’s not recommended to keep more than two or three of these turtles together. They can get aggressive toward each other if there isn’t enough space.
For a group of two to three African Sideneck turtles, you’ll need a 175-gallon or larger aquarium to give them all enough space.
Though they are aquatic, African Sideneck turtles need both water and terrestrial areas in their tank. They need a ramp or a way to get to the dry basking area, and enough space out of the water to lay comfortably.
Large flat rocks make a good, natural-looking basking spot. You could also add a turtle log or some driftwood to enrich your turtle’s environment.
Adding artificial or live aquatic plants to the tank can provide some welcome cover for your turtle. Hornwort, java fern, or even duckweed can be a few good options for live aquatic plants to add to your turtle’s tank.
Live plants can be difficult to maintain though as you need soil, and you’ll probably have to trim them at times (duckweed grows very fast and needs to be thinned occasionally.) Artificial plants are a great alternative if you don’t have the time to dedicate to live plants.
Avoid stacking any decorations in a way that allows the turtle to escape the tank. These turtles love to explore and can be as curious as a cat.
Recommended basic products
Here’s a list of recommended basic products to help you meet the enclosure demands of your West African Mud turtle:
- Tank: SeaClear Aquarium
- Water heater: Aqueon Pro Adjustable Heater
- Water conditioner: API Tap water conditioner
- 2 Water thermometers: Vivosun aquarium thermometers
- Combo UVB/UVA (heating) Lighting: Zoo Med PowerSun UV UVB (160 watts)
- Light Fixture: Zoo Med Wire Cage Clamp Lamp
- Timer: Zoo Med Timer
- Thermometer (basking spot): Exo Terra Thermometer
- Laser thermometer for setup and spot checks (optional): Etekcity Lasergrip
- Filtration: SunSun HW-404B (525gph filtration)
- Automatic Feeder: Zacro Automatic Feeder
Keeping the tank of your African Sideneck turtle clean ensures a healthy environment. The main way to do this is to use a suitable filtration system.
Use a filter that can process at least three times the water capacity of your tank. For instance, for a 40-gallon tank, you’ll need a filter that can cycle 120 gallons. Because African Sideneck turtles are relatively large in size, aim for an external filter.
A sturdy canister filter is also a great option. They usually have multiple-stage filters and biomedia that will help keep the water crystal clean. Especially since they can be messy eaters, and of course, they poop in their water.
With any aquarium setup, you’ll also need to perform partial water changes regularly. Switch out about a quarter of the tank’s water for a fresh supply once per week. Always use dechlorinated water to prevent harmful bacteria or chemicals from infecting your turtle.
Once every month, it’s a good idea to try and clean out the whole tank. For the easiest cleaning, avoid using a substrate as it’s not strictly necessary in an aquatic tank.
Replace all the water with fresh water, and clean all the accessories inside. If you are using tap water, use a dechlorinator, or let it sit out for a few days before using it for your turtle.
Use some water test strips to test the pH of the water. You want mostly neutral water, around 6.5 or 7 on the pH scale.
Like many aquatic turtles, African Sideneck turtles have to consume their food while in the water. This can make them pretty messy at mealtime, making it harder to keep the tank clean.
When feeding your turtle, remove them from the tank and place them in a small tub filled with water, then give them their food. This allows you to separate the mess from the main tank.
If having a separate feed tank is out of the question, just be sure to monitor their mealtime. Only feed them what they can eat within a certain short timeframe.
Once the time is up, use a fine, net scoop to remove any leftover food and particles to help keep the water clean.
Using a substrate in an aquatic turtle tank can make it much harder to keep the tank clean.
While it does lend a natural look to the tank, it can be time-consuming to clean and add a lot of extra effort. Bare-bottom tanks are perfectly fine and will save you a lot of hassle.
If you really want to use something to improve the look of the bottom, some large flat rocks – similar to those recommended for the land area – are a good choice. These can be easily removed for cleaning. Create a gradient up to the basking spot to give your turtle easy access.
Gravel can be used too, as long as the pieces are smooth. Sharp edges can cut or otherwise injure your pet. You also want to make sure the pieces are too big for your turtle to get into its mouth.
While chasing food or exploring, they can accidentally ingest small stones that can cause dangerous impactions. If you’re using gravel, the pieces need to be too large to fit in its mouth.
You can also use sand, which can make the bottom of the enclosure look nice, but this is probably the toughest substrate to keep clean. You’ll probably spend a lot of money replacing sand substrate.
When housing an aquatic turtle, there are two main temperatures to consider—water temperature, and basking temperature.
Provide a water temperature ranging from 75 to 85ºF (24 to 25ºC). Unless you keep your house quite warm, or you keep the enclosure in a sunroom that stays within this temperature range, a water heater will be necessary. Use a thermometer to monitor temperature levels accurately.
The basking spot should offer a basking temperature ranging from 95 to 100ºF (35 to 37.5ºC). Combining a heat lamp with a UVB bulb will make things a little easier on you. You’ll only need one plug and one lamp for the basking area. Mercury vapor bulbs can incorporate both heat and essential UVB rays together.
Keeping track of the humidity is not necessary for African Sideneck turtles.
It’s essential they have plenty of water for swimming, and they need to be submerged to swallow when feeding. So there’s no need to track the humidity.
African Sideneck turtles depend on UVB rays from the sun to properly absorb and process vital nutrients such as calcium and Vitamin D. You need to replicate this in their enclosure by providing a good quality UVB bulb.
Change these bulbs every six months to ensure that they provide enough UVB. Use a timer for the UVB and heat bulbs to make things easier on yourself and to make sure your turtle gets enough heat and light per day. They need at least 12 hours of UVB light per day and a natural day/night cycle to simulate a natural environment for your turtle.
No one likes a bare, bargain-basement turtle tank. To provide an enriching and naturalistic environment for your African Sideneck turtle, there are some accessories that you can add.
Artificial or live aquatic plants, preferably those that are native to the natural habitat of these turtles, can help to provide some cover if your turtle wants to hide away. This also helps to create a more natural environment.
You want to make sure whatever plants you add to your turtle’s tank are not harmful. Most turtles will often graze on the plants in their enclosure, so you want to make sure it’s safe for them to do so.
Flat rocks should also be added to form a basking spot out of the water. Logs and pieces of driftwood can add some interesting obstacles for your inquisitive turtle.
It’s a good idea to make sure the rocks are too heavy for your turtle to move, and/or they are secured in such a way they can’t fall on or trap your turtles.
I’ve seen African Sideneck turtles rearrange their decorations quite often. Some have knocked heaters and filters loose, moved substrate, and relocated their basking spots around. Just make sure they are safe when they get the notion to redecorate.
African Sideneck turtles are omnivores that need a varied diet to remain healthy. You can provide a mix of commercial turtle pellets, insects, mollusks, cooked meats, and strips of fish. They will also need some dark leafy greens such as collard greens or dandelion greens.
Feed your African Sideneck turtle every two or three days, giving it as much food as it can gulp down in a few seconds. Sticking to this schedule makes it easier to avoid overfeeding. Turtles can get obese just as easily as other pets, leading to health problems.
Many turtles will eat constantly if they are allowed. They act like they are always hungry, so resist the temptation to feed them every time they give you that cute, pleading smile.
Most turtle pellets and commercial turtle food contain enough calcium. But if you are feeding your turtle a varied diet—and there’s nothing wrong with that—they may need extra calcium supplementation.
You can make sure your turtle gets enough calcium by adding supplement blocks or cuttlebones. Cuttlebones are usually found in the bird section in most pet stores, but turtles can use them too. Just make sure you remove anything metal on them so they don’t rust in your tank.
Feeding your turtle whole fish is a good way to make sure they get calcium too. The fish bones are high in minerals. You could also feed your African Sideneck turtle whole ghost shrimp. The shells provide a good boost of calcium.
Here’s a list of some recommended foods for your West African Mud turtle:
- Aquatic snails
- Beef hearts
- Black Soldier Fly larvae
- Canned snails
- Collard greens
- Commercial turtle pellets
- Cooked chicken
- Dandelion greens
- Dubia roaches
- Small feeder fish
- Freshwater fish strips (Salmon, Trout, etc)
- Mustard greens
- Romaine or red-leaf lettuce
If you are feeding your turtle pieces of chicken, be sure to never feed them raw chicken. It should be fully cooked as if you were going to eat it, but it can’t have any seasonings or oil and fats added. The best way to cook it is to boil it.
Also, you shouldn’t feed your African Sideneck turtle chicken or foods very high in protein often. Their systems can handle too much protein, and an excessively high protein diet could cause kidney issues.
Raw fish strips are fine as a treat as well, but be sure the scales and bones have been removed. Large bones and scales can get lodged in their throats. It’s best to try and provide a diet as close to what they would find in nature as possible.
Temperament and Handling
Are African Sideneck turtles good pets?
African Sideneck turtles make excellent pets thanks to their energetic and inquisitive personalities. They are fun to watch as they actively explore their tank, swimming around and investigating the environment.
That said, these turtles shouldn’t be handled any more than necessary. Though you can socialize them by spending time with them often, it’s best to not hold an African Sideneck turtle too much. They can get stressed very easily.
You can offer treats and food with tongs to get them used to you being around and associating you with good stuff. Here is a video that can help you tame a skittish turtle without holding it all the time.
When this turtle gets stressed it can release the musk from its glands, or bite. Since they have long necks, they can reach farther than most other turtles can.
This can result in a nasty nip if you don’t hold them correctly. Hold the sides and back of their shells to avoid getting bitten. And always thoroughly wash your hands after any handling of your African Sideneck turtle to prevent the risk of salmonella.
That being said, this particular turtle may not make them the best pet turtle for children. African Sideneck turtles are best as observational pets.
Signs of good health
When choosing your African Sideneck turtle, it’s always best to try and see the animal before buying. This allows you to observe the health of the specimen. There are some signs to look out for to determine whether the turtle is healthy or not.
Check if the shell feels nice and smooth. Irregular bumps, flaking shells, or pyramiding can be signs of severe health problems such as Metabolic Bone Disease. Also, look out for any shell lesions, these could be signs of shell rot.
Shell rot usually shows up when turtles have been subjected to dirty water or unclean enclosures.
The turtle should also be alert. It may try to swim up to you if it’s been socialized, or it should try to swim away if it’s frightened. Lethargic turtles often carry serious health issues.
Make sure that the eyes, nose, and mouth of the turtle are clear and bright. Cloudy eyes, pus, or mucus around any part of the face is a sign of illness. You should also request to see the turtle take some food. A healthy turtle will be enthusiastic to eat. If the turtle ignores food, there could be a health issue.
Some African Sideneck turtles purchased online may have minor eye problems upon arrival, but this is usually a symptom of dehydration and perhaps even substandard shipping conditions. Exposure to sunshine or UVB light is highly recommended to treat these issues, as well as to make sure that your turtle has plenty of water.
African Sideneck turtles can be susceptible to various health problems if certain aspects of their care aren’t met.
In most cases, these turtles are pretty robust and stay relatively healthy. But for a happy turtle, keep the water clean, make sure it gets plenty of light, and has a healthy, varied diet.
Metabolic Bone Disease is one of the main problems when it comes to turtles. This is usually caused by insufficient exposure to UVB light and not enough calcium and Vitamin D in their diet.
Respiratory infections can also become a problem if the temperature levels become too cold for African Sideneck turtles. The water temperature should never go below 70ºF. Remember, these turtles come from the unforgiving desert regions of Africa. They like it hot.
Respiratory infections are indicated by slow or lethargic movement, a reduced appetite, mucus running from the turtle’s nose, or watery eyes. These symptoms can also be caused by parasites. If you suspect either illness, you’ll have to go to your vet for proper treatment.
While you may never see the actual parasites, if you do see tiny worms wriggling around in the water, you should immediately take your turtle to a herp vet for treatment.
Watch out for small cuts and scratches that your turtle might acquire. Turtles can injure themselves when swimming into parts of their tank, such as unguarded heaters or rocks that are too sharp. Avoid sharp edges in the enclosure whenever possible.
African Sideneck housed in communal groups may also occasionally disagree with each other. They can bite or scratch each other when they fight. If this happens often, you’ll need to separate them. Don’t worry about your turtle getting lonely, they are introverts that do fine on their own.
If you see any injuries, or shell deformations, or your turtle is acting very differently, you should take it to a specialist vet right away. They can’t talk and tell you what they are feeling, so you need to look out for their unspoken language.
African Sideneck Turtle Hatchling Care
When caring for African Sideneck turtle hatchlings, the requirements are basically a scaled-down version of care for adults. You will have to be more careful of their tiny bodies, and soft shells though. Baby turtles are much more fragile.
Hatchlings need smaller enclosures, such as a 10-gallon tank in the early stages. Water levels should be low because baby African Sideneck turtles aren’t the strongest swimmers. The water in their enclosure should be about one or two inches or about the length of the hatchling’s shell.
You also need to make sure they have an easy way to climb up to the basking area. A slight incline or low ramp would be best.
Temperatures will need to be around 5 to 10º higher until the babies mature. This helps to encourage good growth.
Hatchlings will also need a largely carnivorous diet, with foodstuffs being cut up into small manageable pieces to avoid choking. Offering soft foods, or small insects will help as the small turtles can bite them into small pieces.
Frequently Asked Questions about African Sideneck turtles
Can African Sideneck turtles eat fruit?
African Sideneck turtles can be fed occasional pieces of fruit. This should be used as a treat, not as a main dietary staple due to the high sugar content. Most aquatic turtles rarely come across fruit in the wild.
Their bodies have a hard time digesting all the sugar that fruit contains so they should only get one or two small pieces of fruit about once a month. Make sure seeds like apple, and melon seeds are removed.
Some good choices include apples, grapes, guava, mango, melon, and peaches.
Do African Sideneck turtles bite?
African Sideneck turtles can bite if they feel threatened or harassed. Their long necks can reach you easier than other species of turtle. Biting is thankfully infrequent, especially if you socialize with your turtles regularly.
You will have to watch out for their sharp claws when you handle them too. Turtles don’t look it, but they are surprisingly strong, and those long claws can quickly scratch you.
Do African Sideneck turtles sleep underwater?
It’s not uncommon for African Sideneck turtles to sleep for short periods underwater. They will still make sure to float up to the surface and breathe every now and then. Once they are comfortable with you and all the activity in your house, you may see them sleeping in their basking area.
That brings our African Sideneck turtle care guide to a close. These cute, charming turtles make great pets for anyone who has had experience with large fish tanks before. This can extend to beginner keepers as well if they’re happy to take on the responsibilities of an aquatic setup.
While they might not be the most hands-on type of pets, they are extremely fun to watch and observe in their tank. Their adorable smiling faces will quickly win your heart!
Adopt an existing turtle if you can, or purchase it as a captive-bred specimen from a registered and reputable breeder.
If you enjoyed this care guide, feel free to leave a comment down below and discuss African Sideneck turtles with us!
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