West African Mud Turtle Care Sheet
The West African mud turtle is a medium sized, aquatic turtle found throughout West Africa
West African Mud Turtle (Pelusios castaneus)
The West African mud turtle is a medium sized, aquatic turtle found throughout West Africa. Highly adaptable, they occur in many fresh water habitats such as mud holes, swamps, rivers and ponds. During droughts and when seasonal spaces dry up, the turtles will aestivate into the ground to wait out the wet season. They are usually found in large numbers basking along muddy banks and are ravenous feeders.
Pelusios castaneus are a uniform brown color except for some captive born and raised specimens which may be very light colored, almost hypomelanistic in appearance. The carapace is a dark to light brown with no markings. The plastron 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. Strong, semi-webbed feet with sharp nails aid the turtle in climbing and ripping food items apart. The neck and large, flat head are withdrawn into the shell sideways eluding to this turtle's second name, "African side neck turtle."
On the top of the head is where the only pattern is found. Light to yellow reticulations which are more or less defined are found here. This trait separates them from the East African mud turtle (Pelusios subniger) which features an unmarked head and 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.
West African mud turtles are quite common in nature and first appeared some 120 million years ago making them one of the most primitive turtle species on earth today. They have withstood the test of time making them expert survivalists in a harsh world.
Pelusios castaneus have remained easily obtainable and fairly inexpensive for the turtle keeper. They are exported in large numbers out of their native Africa and many enthusiasts are now having breeding success. In recent years, the African helmeted turtle appears to be the more commonly offered species to the general public. The West African mud turtle follows behind it with the East African mud turtle being virtually unknown in most collections.
A medium sized species, the West African mud turtle grows to between 7 and 11 inches. Some individuals may make it up to 12 inches.
Like many of the world's chelonians, Pelusios castaneus has the potential to live a long life. Reports typically suggest more than 50 years in captivity for this species.
Outdoors, West African mud turtles can be housed in ponds and water gardens. This species does not hibernate so they should only be kept outside in the spring and summer if you reside in an area subjected to a cool season or winter. The pond should feature an abundance of aquatic plants like hyacinth, water lettuce, iris and lilies. The turtles will appreciate this vegetation as cover. Gradually sloped to a maximum depth of 12 inches, the pond should make up about 75% of the entire enclosure. The remaining 25% will be used for basking and potential egg laying, Shrubs and grasses can be planted in this portion to allow for extra cover.
The turtles may leave the water during extended heat waves and seek refuge under these plants. The entire enclosure should be at least 10X10 feet for up to eight adult turtles. A strong retaining wall of at least 18 inches is a must to prevent the inhabitants from climbing out. This can be constructed from pressure treated wood, cement blocking or landscaping timbers. The wall should also extend into the ground 6 inches or more in case of an escape via digging. Predator proofing through means of a screen lid made from 2X4's and reliable wire mesh may be necessary in your area.
Indoors, this species can be housed by using a variety of methods. Fairly easy to accommodate, Pelusios castaneus will do well in large all glass aquariums, stock tanks, troughs and custom built tubs. For up to four adults, a unit of at least 6X3.5 feet is suggested. The water should be no more than 6 to 8 inches and can be filled with live or fake aquatic plants. Driftwood, large cork bark slabs, rocks and half logs make for excellent basking sites and will be used readily by the turtles.
The more decor the better so that the turtles can "escape" one another especially when an overly enthusiastic male is in hot pursuit of the females. Always watch for aggressive group members and remove them to avoid injuries. Filtration is optional but if you opt against it like I do, be ready to do water changes every 2 to 3 days. The water will dirty quickly and start to smell. Even when using a filter, water changes are inevitable because these turtles can make quite a mess during feeding time. You can always feed the turtles in a separate "feeding tub" to help cut down on the frequency of water changes.
Lighting, Temperature and Humidity
When housed outside, the turtles need nothing more than the sun for appropriate lighting and temperature. Inside, artificial lighting is recommended. Mercury vapor bulbs of 100-150 watts have proven to be a good choice. They provide both UVA and UVB rays and give off excellent heat. Placed above the basking area, these bulbs will offer the turtles all they require to warm up and stay active in a room where the ambient temperature stays between the mid 70s and 80s. With the basking area reaching at least 95F and the appropriate ambient room temperature, it is not necessary to heat the water. If room temps do tend to fall beyond the low 60s, a submersible fish tank heater can be added to bring the water back to a more desirable degree.
For the sake of limiting the amount of work I have to put into cleaning any indoor aquatic turtle habitat, I choose to not use a substrate in the water section. It makes things much easier. However, larger sized pea gravel is a good choice if you would like to use something. Outdoors, the turtles will drag the substrate from the land/nesting into the water area which is fine. They will enjoy digging into it at the bottom especially on excessively hot days.
Pelusios castaneus will accept a wide variety of food items. We have success offering our turtles pinkies, whole skinned mice, commercial turtle pellets, chicken, fish, shrimp, beef heart, ground turkey meat and the occasional fruit like strawberries. They will also take cat and dog foods (sparingly) along with koi pellets. If kept outdoors, the turtles will sometimes catch some of their own food in the form of worms, insects, frogs and tadpoles. Even wild birds that land inside the enclosure are at risk of becoming a potential meal. Baby Pelusios can be offered any of the above items but in smaller pieces.
This species is capable of surviving in stagnant ponds and rather dirty water conditions. This is of course something that should not be purposely practiced in captivity. Keep any water source as clean as possible by overflowing outdoor ponds weekly and by doing frequent water changes for indoor units.
Handling and Temperament
While no turtle likes to be picked and held, the West African mud turtle has a rather calm disposition. They rarely bite and usually withdraw into their shells if they are being handled. Some will attempt to free themselves so watch out for those sharp nails. We only handle our turtles during water changes and for health inspections to help minimize any stress.
This species has a voracious appetite and they quickly learn to recognize their keeper as a food source. They will swim and walk over to you in hopes of receiving a bite to eat. Aggression can occur during feeding time so always be on the look out for a problem. They are an inquisitive species and certainly do not just vanish under the mud except for during extreme weather conditions. Their basking capabilities adds to the character they already show and they can be a lot of fun to watch as they pile on top of one another for the best spot.
Reproduction and Breeding
The breeding success of Pelusios castaneus in captivity seems to be centered in the collections of zoos and institutions but private keepers are having some luck as well. Clutches can be as large as 11 to 18 eggs by a single female. The chalky eggs are laid in a sandy-soil substrate and the female digs a deep hole which she lowers herself down into a significant amount. Once the female has finished nesting, the eggs can be dug up and placed in an artificial incubator. In the incubator, the eggs are kept on moist vermiculite in deli cups with air holes punched into them. They require a higher humidity level of between 90-95%.
At a temperature of 85-87F, the fertile eggs will hatch at around 53-59 days, sometimes more than 60. The little neonates can be placed in a similar indoor setting as the adults but the water should not be as deep. A depth of 2-4" is fine and the babies will use the aquatic plants as refuge and security. After about 4 to 7 days, they usually start accepting their first meals. They should not be placed outdoors until they are of a more substantial size like 3 to 4". I highly suggest that hatchlings be kept separate from the always hungry adults to avoid severe bites and to protect them from being consumed altogether.
Chris Leone's educational contributions to the reptile community have been an essential addition to much of the information available today. His constant work with many of the world's turtle and tortoise species helps to reveal new and exciting details on captive husbandry along with breeding frequently. For an up to date look into the world of chelonian keeping, visit him at: www.gardenstatetortoise.com & www.hermannihaven.com