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African Sideneck Turtle (African Mud Turtle) Guide

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, and will happily swim around their tank or watch you walk around once they’re comfortable with your presence.

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.

African Sideneck Turtle Facts

AfricanSideneck Turtle with neck elongated
African Sideneck Turtle with its neck elongated in a turtle tank.
  • 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. Instead, they use the overhang of the edge of their carapace and tuck their head in the gap, earning them their “Sideneck” name.

Unlike most other species of turtle, African Sideneck turtles can right themselves if they get flipped on their back. They do this by using their strong neck to lever themselves onto their feet.

African Sideneck turtles sometimes get mixed up with African Helmeted turtles. Both species share a similar appearance and are both referred to as African Side-necked turtles. Both are also part of the Pelomedusidae family. For this article, we’ll refer to them more as West African Mud turtles to eliminate confusion!

What does an African Sideneck turtle look like?

West African Mud 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.

On the top of their olive-green heads, they have black mottled markings. Two flesh 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?

West African Mud turtles are 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?

West African Mud turtles are found in Western regions of Sub-Saharan Africa such as Angola, the Congo, Ghana, Senegal, and Sierra Leone.

What kind of habitat do African Sideneck turtles need?

West African Mud turtles require an aquatic habitat. In the wild, they typically inhabit lagoons, lakes, ponds, and streams located in grasslands or forest areas. In the dry season, these turtles will burrow into the mud and aestivate until the rains return.

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 in ideal conditions.

What do African Sideneck turtles eat?

Like many turtles, West African Mud turtles are omnivorous. In the younger stages of their lives, their diet is primarily carnivorous. But as they mature into adults, they consume more and more vegetation. Adults will typically eat a variety of aquatic insects, small amphibians or fish, and aquatic plants.

How do African Sideneck turtles breed?

West African Mud turtles nest and lay eggs during the dry season, producing a couple of clutches. The eggs will then hatch during the following rainy season. Females will lay between six and 18 eggs every year.

Across various parts of the West African Mud turtle’s range, the exact timing of these periods can vary. Consequently, the exact nesting and hatching periods vary in different regions as well.

What predators do African Sideneck turtles face?

West African Mud turtles don’t face many regular predators and are protected by their shells. However, in many countries where these reptiles are native, humans will hunt them for their meat. Some cultures also use West African Mud turtles in traditional medicine.

African Sideneck Turtle Endangerment

These turtles are list as least concern on the IUCN red list since 1996 and they are doing very well in the wild.

African Sideneck Turtle Care sheet

African Sideneck Turtle (Pelusios castaneus)

Pelusios castaneus surrounded by green foliage.

Enclosure

Because they are aquatic turtles, West African Mud turtles need a habitat that provides a lot of water. They also need plenty of swimming space. For an individual turtle, a 40-gallon tank is the minimum required size.

Groups of West African Mud turtles can be housed together, but keep males separate to avoid aggression during the natural breeding season. For a group, plump for something like a 175-gallon to give them all enough space.

West African Mud turtles need both water and terrestrial areas in their tank. Water depth should be between six and eight inches, or one-and-a-half times as large as the turtle’s carapace length. Adding artificial or live aquatic plants to the tank can provide some welcome cover for your turtle.

The land area is primarily used for basking, so make sure to create one to help your turtle dry off and warm up. Some flat rocks make a good, natural-looking basking spot. You could also add a turtle log or some driftwood to create an enriching environment for your turtle.

Avoid stacking any decorations in a way that allows the turtle to escape the tank.

Recommended basic products

Here’s a list of recommended basic products to help you meet the enclosure demands of your West African Mud turtle:

Cleaning

Keeping the tank of your West African Mud 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. So for a 40-gallon tank, you’ll need a filter that can cycle 120-gallons. Because West African Mud turtles are a relatively large size, aim for an external filter. A sturdy canister filter is also an option.

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.

Like many aquatic turtles, West African Mud 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.

Substrate

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’s a lot of 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.

Temperature

Pelusios castaneus (African Mud Turtle)

When housing an aquatic turtle, there are three main temperatures to consider – air temperature, water temperature, and basking temperature. The ambient air temperature for a West African Mud turtle should be kept at around 80 to 85ºF (26.5 to 30ºC).

Provide a water temperature ranging from 70 to 75ºF (21 to 24ºC). Use a water heater if necessary. In some climates, the conditions of your room will be enough to maintain this water temperature. 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). Combine the heat lamp with a UVB bulb as well to provide nutrients to your turtle. Mercury vapor bulbs can incorporate both heat and UVB together.

Humidity

Keeping track of the humidity is not strictly necessary for West African Mud turtles because their water should take care of that. As long as they have access to plenty of water, this is taken care of.

Lighting

West African Mud turtles are dependent on UVB rays from the sun to properly receive and process vital nutrients such as calcium and Vitamin D. You need to replicate this in their enclosure by providing a UVB bulb.

Change these bulbs every six months to ensure that they provide enough UVB. With both the UVB and heat bulbs, set them to a 12-hour day/night cycle to simulate a natural environment for your turtle.

Accessories

No one likes a bare, bargain-basement turtle tank. To provide an enriching and naturalistic environment for your West African Mud 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.

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.

Feeding

West African Mud 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 West African Mud 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.

With a couple of meals, administer some calcium or Vitamin D supplements to the food. Alternatively, you could provide a calcium block or cuttlefish bone in the enclosure to allow your turtle to get whatever calcium they need.

To avoid messy feeding times, take your turtle out of its enclosure and place it in a smaller tub filled with dechlorinated water. Feed them as needed and then pop them back in their tank. This avoids the buildup of discarded food in the main tank.

Here’s a list of some recommended foods for your West African Mud turtle:

  • Aquatic snails
  • Beef hearts
  • Black Soldier Fly larvae
  • Bloodworms
  • Canned snails
  • Cockles
  • Collard greens
  • Commercial turtle pellets
  • Cooked chicken
  • Crickets
  • Dandelion greens
  • Dubia roaches
  • Earthworms
  • Small feeder fish
  • Freshwater fish strips (Salmon, Trout, etc)
  • Krill
  • Mealworms
  • Mussels
  • Mustard greens
  • Romaine or red-leaf lettuce
  • Shrimp
  • Spinach

Temperament and handling

African Sideneck Turtle (Pelusios castaneus) hiding in shell

Are African Sideneck turtles good pets?

West African Mud 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. This may not make them the best pet turtle for children. West African Mud turtles are best as observational pets. Their long neck allows them to have a much larger biting radius, which 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.

Thoroughly wash your hands after any handling of your West African Mud turtle to prevent the risk of salmonella.

Signs of good health

When choosing your West African Mud 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. The turtle should also be alert, wriggling to try to escape. Lethargic turtles often carry serious health issues.

Make sure that the eyes of the specimen are clear and bright, with no clouding or mucus around the eyes or nostrils. 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 West African Mud 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 making sure that your turtle has plenty of water.

Health concerns

West African Mud 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 can handle a little neglect. But for a happy turtle, keep on top of everything.

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. MBD can manifest as irregular bumps on the skin as well as pyramiding. Calcium or Vitamin D deficiency can also be indicated by irritated eyes or strange open cuts on the skin.

Respiratory infections can also become a problem if the temperature levels become too cold for West African Mud turtles. Respiratory infections are indicated by slow or lethargic movement, a reduced appetite for food, mucus running from the turtle’s nose, or watery eyes. These infections can also be caused by parasites, so look out for tiny worms wriggling around in the water.

Watch out for small cuts and scratches that your turtle might accumulate. 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.

West African Mud turtles housed in communal groups may also occasionally disagree with each other. If this happens too often, consider separating some of the individuals.

If your turtle seems to be suffering from any of these symptoms, take them to a specialist vet right away.

Video on African Sideneck turtle care

African Sideneck Turtle Hatchling Care

When it comes to caring for West African Mud turtle hatchlings, the requirements are basically a scaled-down version of care for adults. Hatchlings need smaller enclosures, such as a 10-gallon tank in the early stages. Water levels should be low, about one or two inches or about the length of the hatchling’s shell.

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 manageable pieces to avoid choking.

Frequently Asked Questions about African Sideneck turtles

Can African Sideneck turtles eat fruit?

West African Mud turtles (also known as 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. Some good choices include apples, grapes, guava, mango, melon, and peaches.

Do African Sideneck turtles bite?

West African Mud turtles can bite if they feel threatened. They have long necks and can reach you easier than other species of turtle. Biting is thankfully infrequent, especially if you socialize with your turtles regularly. Watch out for their sharp claws as well.

Do African Sideneck turtles sleep underwater?

It’s not uncommon for West African Mud turtles to sleep underwater. They will still make sure to float up to the surface and breathe every now and then.

Conclusion

That brings our African Sidneck/West African Mud 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 handleable 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 as a captive-bred specimen from a registered breeder.

If you enjoyed this care guide, feel free to leave a comment down below and discuss West African Mud turtles with us!

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bitch

Wednesday 23rd of December 2020

I have a side neck turtle i was upgrading her tank to a 30 gallon tank is that to small

Connie

Thursday 11th of June 2020

This article was great but I didn't see anything about the turtles skin shedding. Tell me you just forgot to mention this and there's no need for me to be concerned. Also what to do when turtle will not bask? I took him outside but he/she just hides under in my shadow.

Lynda

Saturday 9th of November 2019

Have West Africa side neck ? turtle and he's shedding his skin around neck area. Need help

Sue

Wednesday 24th of July 2019

Hi! My name is Sue and I am writing on behalf of my friend who has an African side-neck. She told me that for the last two days, her turtle, Ninja has been very quiet. I can't find any information on this type of behavior. Would you be able to share any insight on this? Thanks so much!

LaShunda Jefferson

Wednesday 3rd of July 2019

I have an almost 1 yr old male African Side-Neck. He is still in his 20 gallon tank but will be upgraded very soon. His name is Dude!

Unfortunately he was not given de-wormer at the pet store & we have been battling a very stubborn worm. He was treated late May to earlier June 2019. But it recently re-appeared & so now the vet has him on a double dose of de-wormer. I hope we can nip it in the bud this time! I have been told to clean his tank completely for the next 4 weeks...so no good bacteria left in the tank as he could be pooping out invisible worm eggs & re-digesting them...Ewwwwhhhh

I was tryna find different fruits & veggies he can eat. This site was very helpful!

Thank you...LaLa

AllTurtles

Thursday 4th of July 2019

Thanks for sharing! Happy to hear we were able to provide some help!