Animal Information

African Mud Turtle… East, West, and Helmeted… Lots of info!

African Mud Turtles first appeared some 120 million years ago making them one of the most primitive turtle species on earth today.

The African Sideneck Turtle is a part of a group of turtles. Fifteen species in the Pelusios genus can be found in large populations throughout Africa, Madagascar, and Seychelles. Pelomedusa subrufa is found in Madagascar and parts of Africa.

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The West African Mud Turtle (Pelusios castaneus), is a medium-sized turtle that is found in freshwater habitats such as mud holes, swamps, rivers, and ponds.

The East African Black Mud Turtle (Pelusios subniger), also known as the Pan terrapin, is a species of turtle in the family Pelomedusidae, native to eastern and southeastern Africa.

The African Helmeted Turtle (Pelomedusa subrufa), also known commonly as the Marsh terrapin. The species naturally occurs in fresh and stagnant water bodies throughout much of Sub-Saharan Africa, and in southern Yemen.

Uniquely, the genus Pelomedusa does not have a hinged plastron (lower shell). All the other species in the family Pelomedusidae, however, do have this feature with which they can, using muscles, close the plastron to the carapace to cover the head and front limbs. Unlike many chelonians, the African helmeted turtle is able, when it finds itself upside down, to right itself with a vigorous flick of its long muscular neck.

Recent genetic research suggests that Pelomedusa comprises at least 10 different species, and not only one as previously thought. In the past the physical differences between populations were not regarded as substantial enough to recognise more than one species

African Helmeted Turtle

The carapace (the hard upper shell of a turtle) is a dark to light brown with no markings.

The plastron (the underside of the shell) is also brown with some lighter colors found towards the middle.

The neck and large, flat head are withdrawn into the shell sideways hence, this turtle’s second name, “African side neck turtle.”

The carapace (top of shell) is a dark to light brown with no markings. The plastron (bottom of shell) is also brown with some lighter areas found usually in the middle. The skin is gray to brown with lighter areas underneath and on the soft parts.

Click to see these turtles underwater

What Do They Eat?

African side-necks have longer necks than most other species of turtles. They use this long neck as the super predator they are to hunt.

African Mud Turtles are primarily carnivorous but will eat aquatic plants too, especially as juveniles. In the wild, they eat the water grasses and algae, insects, worms, snails, small fish, amphibians, and crabs.

Captives adapt to eating commercial floating turtle sticks (e.g. Mazuri Aquatic Turtle Diet), and these are fine if supplemented with the more carnivorous fare, such as crickets, earthworms, and snails. It is important to provide plenty of calcium. Keeping a cuttlebone in the habitat will allow the turtle to self-regulate calcium intake. You may also sprinkle reptile calcium often over food.

These aquatic turtles have withstood the test of time making them expert survivalists in a harsh world. During droughts and when seasonal spaces dry up, the turtles will excavate into the ground to wait out the wet season.

They are usually found in large numbers basking along muddy banks and are ravenous feeders.  Strong, semi-webbed feet with sharp nails aid the turtle in climbing and ripping food items apart.

Although Mud Turtles can be seen basking throughout, these turtles are more active at night and are considered to be nocturnal.

The species naturally occurs in fresh and stagnant water bodies.

How Do You Tell The Difference Between East & West African Mud Turtles?

Or If It Is the African Helmeted Turtle

On the top of the head is where the only pattern is found on the West African Mud Turtle.

Light to yellow reticulations which are more or less defined is found here.

This trait separates them from the East African Mud Turtle (Pelusios subniger) which features an unmarked head.

You will also find a “figure 8” shaped plastron. Both P. castaneus and P. subniger exhibit a hinged plastron. This differentiates them from a very similar species of turtle, the African helmeted turtle (Pelomedusa subrufa) which sports a fixed plastron.

Hatching African Mud Turtles

Females dig nest cavities and lay their eggs in late winter or early spring. Baby turtles hatch out about two months later. We were successful at hatching them just as we do our tortoises at 85 degrees Fahrenheit.  I do not think that is a test to our experience. It is more likely showcasing just how hardy this African species is.

Do They Play Nice?

These turtles are easy to handle and are not aggressive towards humans but are highly aggressive towards other turtles, I find many of the African species of plants and animals instinctively fight to survive.

You can socialize pet aquatic turtles with frequent interaction, and African side-necks are no exception. They are fast to learn their keepers. Because they have a strong instinct to find food. Most African species have adapted in this sort of way.

Their long strong neck gives them a distinct advantage over arguments with fellow turtles. If they find themselves turned over on their shells, these turtles can right themselves using their neck muscles. Most turtles are helpless when turned on their shells.

Are They Endangered?

This species has an expansive range and is relatively abundant in the wild. It does not appear to be threatened, although over-collection for the pet and food trade is always going to be an issue for any turtle.

The African Helmeted Turtle (Pelomedusa subrufa), is the most widely distributed turtle in all of Africa. It occupies the entire continent south of the Sahara desert.

Are They Easy To Care For?

A good quality water filter is needed since aquatic turtles defecate in the water and without a filter, you’ll be doing weekly water changes. Some people prefer canister filters while others like the smaller submersible filters. For a large tank, such as a 75 gallon, investing in a quality canister filter is typically your best option.

We have chosen to raise these guys in ponds. Each pond has a bulkhead and overflow. Click here to see a video where we show you a little of the installation.

Do It Right The First Time!

We use live plants as a natural filter.

In addition to keeping the water clean, you should dechlorinate the water by either letting it sit out for 24 hours before adding it to the tank or by adding a dechlorinating solution to it.

A recommended pH of 6.5 (a fairly neutral pH) should be maintained and can be easily checked with water test strips from the pet store. We are blessed to have well water. We still acclimate cages for a couple of weeks prior to adding animals. Beneficial bacteria is very important.

Let us know your ideas and comments below!

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