Housing for turtles depends on the species. Terrestrial turtles, such as the various species of tortoises, require setups similar to those used for snakes and lizards. Aquatic turtles have special requirements of their own. We must therefore consider the housing needs of both categories of turtles separately.
For the smaller terrestrial turtles, such as baby tortoises, the most practical accommodation is an ordinary tropical ﬁsh aquarium. Any pet supply store will have a large assortment of aquariums, with several at very inexpensive prices. Glass or plexiglass aquariums are both suitable, but be aware that turtle claws can easily scratch plexiglass, which will cloud the tank walls over time and make it more and more difﬁcult to see your turtle.
By checking the classiﬁed ads in the local newspaper, you can usually ﬁnd a number of aquariums for sale at prices far below those you would pay in a pet supply store. Since you will need a very large tank, buying it through a classiﬁed ad is probably the least expensive option. And, since you will not be ﬁlling your tank with water, it does not matter if your aquarium leaks (you might even be able to ﬁnd a pet supply store that has a cracked or leaky tank that they will let you have at cost).
Get the largest tank you possibly can. Terrestrial turtles are, on average, much larger than their aquatic cousins, and being fairly active animals, they require more room to move around than do amphibious turtles. The minimum-size tank for a small Russian tortoise-size terrestrial turtle is 20 gallons, and larger is deﬁnitely better. Large tortoises, such as Leopards, Greeks, and Redfoots, require even larger tanks.
Most aquariums come in two styles: the high or show tank, which is designed to be taller than normal; and the low or breeder tank, which has lower sides but a wider bottom area. Since turtles cannot climb the glass, high sides are not necessary, and the breeder style of tank provides the maximum area usable by the turtle.
Unless you will be adding a lid, the tank should be a minimum of several inches taller than the turtle is long. If the sides are too low, the turtle will be able to hook his front claws on the edge and pull himself up and out. If you have more than one turtle per tank, or if you have rocks or tree branches for decoration, keep in mind that these can all serve as ladders for an escape attempt. For maximum security, the sides of the tank should be as high as is practical for you to still reach inside and easily clean, feed, and tend your turtle.
As long as your turtle cannot get up the sides of the tank, you will not need a lid to keep him in. However, if you have cats, dogs, or small children, you may need a screened lid to keep them out. Several types of screen lids are available for most aquarium sizes, and all are suitable for turtle tanks.
Outdoor Turtle Pen
Another option for the serious turtle keeper is to build an outdoor turtle pen. For adult tortoises of most species, this is pretty much the only suitable option. This project is most satisfying in areas where the climate allows the turtles to be kept outside permanently; in most areas of the United States, winter conditions necessitate bringing the turtles inside in the cold weather. If you keep turtles native to your area, however, they can hibernate naturally right inside their pen.
Most tortoises do not hibernate, so they can only be kept outdoors in the southern regions of the United States, where their natural environmental conditions can be approximated. Keep in mind that heat is not the only consideration: Tropical tortoises such as Redfoots won’t do well in arid areas like Arizona, while desert tortoises such as Sulcatas won’t do well in humid areas like Florida.
The pen should be as large as is practical, and should contain areas of shade and areas of sun. It is very important that the turtle pen have at least some areas of shade at all times during the day, because unprotected tortoises can overheat quickly in a full midday sun. At the same time, warm basking spots must always be available. Tortoises should be able to regulate their body temperature by moving from sun to shade as needed.
Several large, ﬂat rocks can serve as basking spots and will retain heat. You will also need some rock caves where the turtles can retreat for shade and whenever they need to feel secure. If the bulk of the pen area is left in its natural state, with several inches of soil, some leaf litter, and vegetation, the turtles will spend most of their time happily digging and foraging for edible plants.
Your turtles will require water, and many terrestrial tortoises do like an occasional soaking, so the turtle pen should also contain a small, shallow pond. Since terrestrial tortoises do not swim well and can drown quite easily, the water should be just barely deep enough to cover the turtle’s legs.
The pond will lose water steadily to evaporation and will have to be topped up often. It will also be soiled with dirt and leaf litter by the turtle, and will have to be emptied, cleaned, and reﬁlled occasionally—a menial but vital task.
Keeping Your Turtle Warm
Because turtles are ectotherms and cannot produce their own body heat, they must be provided with outside heat sources to maintain their optimum body temperature. This is the most crucial factor in successfully keeping reptiles in captivity—nearly every health problem turtles face can be directly traced to how well their thermal requirements are being met.
Heat can be thought of as fuel—the higher the temperature, the faster the turtle’s metabolism becomes, and the more efﬁciently he can move, digest food, resist disease, and perform other biological functions.
Tortoises are also very susceptible to respiratory infections if they are kept in conditions that are too chilly or drafty, even for a short period of time. They must be kept warm if they are to remain healthy.
Different Temperature Requirements
No one single temperature is best for keeping all turtles. Turtles from different regions and natural habitats require different ranges of temperatures.
Speciﬁc temperature requirements for individual turtles will vary depending upon the turtle’s biological activity. That’s why you must provide a range of different temperatures, or a temperature gradient, that enables the turtle to select the temperature he wants by moving from warmer to cooler areas.
The electric hot rocks or sizzle stones that are often sold in pet supply stores should not be used in any turtle’s tank. The inability to regulate their temperature, malfunctions, and risk of burns make them problematic. Hot rocks do not warm the surrounding air very much, and the only way for the turtle to obtain the heat is through physical contact with the heater. Since turtles have few nerve endings in their plastrons, it is not at all rare for them to sit on an overheated hot rock, unaware that their skin is being severely burned. Sizzle stones are also useless in providing a workable temperature gradient and do not allow the turtle to effectively thermoregulate. Finally, hot rocks do not allow turtles to mimic their natural behavior patterns, since the majority of turtles obtain most of their heat by basking in strong sunlight rather than by contact with a heated surface. Most turtles prefer that their heat source come from above.
It may seem to be a simple matter to place the turtle’s tank near a window, where it will receive warmth from direct sunlight. However, in an enclosed aquarium, direct sunlight would quickly trap the heat and raise the temperature to lethal levels. You’ll need heat sources you can regulate.
Using an incandescent basking lamp is one way to safely duplicate the warming effects of the sun. (This must, however, be supplemented with full-spectrum lighting—more on this later.) The size, power, and distance above the tank of the basking lamp must be determined through trial and error, and will depend upon the temperature range desired as well as the size and dimensions of the tank. In other words, you’ll have to place a thermometer on the bottom of the tank and take a variety of temperature readings over several hours.
For most terrestrial tortoises, the temperature directly under the basking light should be in the 90- to 95-degree range, while the temperature at the far end of the tank should be around 80 degrees. In most tanks, a 75-watt spotlight bulb provides adequate heat. Place the basking lamp in a spot where it cannot be reached or physically touched by the turtle, since contact can produce serious burns.
Recently, a ceramic heating element that replaces incandescent basking lights has come on the market. It uses a heat bulb and a socket that resembles a light bulb, but gives off only heat without light. Ceramic elements can be connected to small thermostats for precise heat control –which also makes them much more expensive than ordinary basking lights.
For best results, the turtle tank should have ceramic heating elements to produce a hot spot for basking, and a full-spectrum ﬂuorescent light to provide ultraviolet wavelengths. Both should be wired to an electric timer, and the heater should be controlled with a thermostat. This setup is suitable for any terrestrial turtle.
Warming the Substrate
Certain turtles, including the Greek and Leopard tortoise, require additional “belly heat” from an artiﬁcially warmed substrate to aid in digestion. Since electric hot rocks and heated plastic hide boxes can be dangerous, I recommend using one of two other sources.
One, the undertank heater, is like a tiny heating pad or electric blanket. It is placed underneath the turtle tank, where it produces heat that diffuses through the ﬂoor of the tank and substrate.
The other, heat tape, is similar, but comes in a long electric ribbon that fastens to the bottom of the tank. Both produce enough heat to penetrate half-inch plywood and produce temperatures in the low 80s. Both are rather expensive, however.
Turtles have internal body clocks that respond to changes in light, and thus need a cycle of light and dark to keep all their internal processes in sync.
Proper lighting is also important for efﬁcient vitamin absorption. Tortoises, like most reptiles, cannot store vitamin D3 in their bodies, and so use the ultraviolet wavelengths found in natural sunlight to manufacture this vitamin in their skin. Vitamin D3 is necessary to help your turtle use the calcium in his food to produce new bone tissue. Without a source of ultraviolet light to activate D3, turtles will suffer from nutritional deﬁciencies and die. They therefore need exposure to natural, unﬁltered sunlight or to special full-spectrum lamps that duplicate the ultraviolet wavelengths found in natural sunlight.
Ultraviolet Light Requirements
Since there is no accepted standard deﬁnition of “full-spectrum” lighting, you must be cautious in selecting a light for your turtle habitat. Some companies use “full-spectrum” to refer to the presence of any ultraviolet (UV) light. The artiﬁcial sunlamps used for indoor plants fall into this category.
Plants need large amounts of UV-A, and these are the wavelengths that are found in indoor grow lights. Reptiles need UV-B wavelengths to synthesize vitamin D3; therefore, they need a full-spectrum lamp speciﬁcally designed for reptiles, which emits a large amount of UV-B light. The best advice for beginners is to stick with the fullspectrum UV-B ﬂuorescent lamps to meet your reptile’s needs.
The UV lamp must be as close as practical to your turtles, keeping in mind that both glass and clear plastic ﬁlter out nearly all the ultraviolet wavelengths. Shine the UV lamp directly onto your turtles, with no intervening glass or plastic. Since UV bulbs lose energy with age, they should be replaced every six months.
Terrestrial turtles should also be exposed to as much unﬁltered natural sunlight as possible. According to some estimates, a turtle gets more useful UV-B in ﬁfteen minutes of exposure to natural sunlight than he does in several hours of exposure to artiﬁcial UV light. Remember that sunlight coming in through window glass is not unﬁltered, and will not give your turtle the light he needs.
Recently, special lighting hoods that contain both an incandescent heat bulb and a ﬂuorescent full-spectrum lamp in one ﬁxture have become available. These two-in-one ﬁxtures enable you to connect both basking heat and ultraviolet light to a single outlet. They are suitable for any terrestrial turtle’s tank.
To duplicate the natural environment as closely as possible, turtles from equatorial or tropical areas should have a twelve-hour-on, twelve-hour-off light schedule, which mimics the length of the tropical day. Temperate turtles can also tolerate a tropical light schedule; however, it is best to mimic the natural length of the day, making the light period shorter in winter and longer in summer.
Turtles are well-protected against predators inside their bony shells, but they prefer to have a dark retreat where they can hide and feel safe. They also need an area of shade where they can avoid overheating. For these reasons, all terrestrial turtles need a hide box.
The hide box should be snug, with enough room for the turtle to enter and turn around when he is inside (turtles cannot easily back up if they encounter an obstruction). A wooden box, a little longer on each side than the length of the turtle, with one side removed for an entrance, makes a good hide box. A suitable retreat can also be made using rocks and ﬂat stones to build a shallow cave. The hide box should be placed at the end of the tank opposite the basking spot.
Most tortoises will do quite well in a barren tank with just substrate, a water dish, a hide box, and a heat and light source. Such tanks are rather unattractive, though, and most people want to include some sort of decoration or “furniture” for the turtle tank. These decorations are for your pleasure, not the turtle’s. So the main considerations are that they are easy to keep clean and are safe for your reptile.
Many turtle keepers like to place a small, ﬂat pile of rocks in the tank to help retain heat from the basking light. Multicolored or unusually shaped rocks for use in ﬁsh tanks can be found in aquarium shops or in your backyard. Any rocks used in a turtle tank must be smooth, because sharp or rough edges can injure the turtle’s plastron and lead to bacterial or fungal infections.
Rock piles should be low enough that the turtle can easily climb on and off them. Most turtles can right themselves if they accidentally fall onto their backs, but some of the desert tortoises, which have high, domed shells, may not be able to. If they are trapped on their backs under a basking light, they may quickly overheat and die.
To prevent parasites, rocks and stones must be carefully cleaned and disinfected before being placed in the tank. The best way to disinfect them is to soak them overnight in a three-percent solution of ordinary laundry bleach (sodium hypochlorite) or a strong salt solution. This should be enough to kill any bugs hiding within. Afterward, thoroughly wash the rocks in a large amount of water to rinse away any trace of the disinfectant.
Live plants are often used in a tortoise tank to give it a more natural appearance. Plants must be chosen very carefully, since terrestrial tortoises will eat a lot of plant material, some of which is extremely toxic to reptiles. Plants to avoid include coleus, crocus, impatiens, poinsettia, Spanish bayonet, trumpet vine, and Virginia creeper.
Even if the plant is safe and will not harm the tortoise, it is a virtual certainty that the tortoise will harm the plant, either by crawling over it and crushing it or by eating all the foliage. In any case, desert tortoises require conditions that are too dry for most live plants, and such tortoises are best kept in a bare tank with just a few rocks. If you’d like, you can arrange some potted cactus plants in the tank, but they will very likely be gnawed on continuously by the tortoises, and will eventually be uprooted and destroyed.
For all these reasons, it is best not to use any plants at all in the tortoise tank. Of course, it is possible to use plastic plants, which won’t get eaten and can easily be rearranged after the tortoise has dug them up for the thousandth time. (Take care, though, because some tortoises aren’t that bright, and they will try to swallow the plastic plants.)