Soft-Shelled Turtle Information And Care
Sean Donohue Photo/Shutterstock
The soft-shelled turtles are some of the most recognized turtles in the world, and arguably some of the most unique. Their pancake-like appearance, the lack of bony scutes on their shells, and their snorkel-like neck and head distinguish them from most other turtles. They also possess an adaptation that allows them to breathe underwater, similar to fish. These differences, as well as the soft-shelled turtles’ intelligence and personality, make them interesting species to keep in captivity.
Due to the fact that soft-shelled turtles are mass-farmed in some parts of the world (numbering in the hundreds of millions per year in some provinces in China), there is probably more information available about the husbandry and care of soft-shelled turtles available than all other turtle species combined. Unfortunately, most of it is written in Chinese and is geared for large-scale operations. Soft-shelled turtles do well in captivity, and with consideration to some of their special needs, they make novel and long-term additions to any collection, with some specimens having lived more than 25 years.
Soft-shelled turtles belong to the family Trionychidae, which is a reference to the three claws found on each foot. Trionychidae by genus: in Africa (Trionyx), Asia (Dogania, Aspideretes, Palea and Amyda), New Guinea (Chitra and Pelochelys) and finally, North America (Apalone, formally Trionyx). The “true soft-shells” are often referred to as being from the genus Pelochelys, Apalone (Trionyx) and Chitra. Most of the Old World species are hard to obtain, and typically, they are unsuitable for captivity due to their large size. Cantor’s soft-shelled (Pelochelys cantorii) from Asia can reach a length of 6 feet, and the New Guinea soft-shelled (Pelochelys bibroni) of, you guessed it, New Guinea, can exceed 4 feet in length. These are not good fits for most of the commonly found tanks at your local pet store! Most of the commonly kept soft-shells are from North America, but there are some from other countries that are worth looking into.
In India and Pakistan, two uniquely marked species are found. The Ganges soft-shelled (Trionyx gangiticus) and the peacock soft-shelled (Trionyx hurum) both have intricate patterns of dots and lines on the top of their shells and along their neck and head. This is surrounding four outlined spots that resemble eyes. Looking at half of the turtle with the feet sticking out, the markings resemble the face of an owl, complete with tufted ears! The surrounding pattern, relating to both coloration and intricacy, can vary greatly between individual specimens. This appearance is more pronounced in the young, but even the adults tend to retain the “eye” pattern. They are listed as vulnerable in their native range, but I remember years back seeing some that were being kept and bred by some dedicated individuals. Although they can grow to more than 2 feet long, their outlandish shell designs and size can make for an impressive display animal.
Probably the most available soft-shelled turtle worldwide is the Chinese soft-shelled (Pelodiscus [Trionyx] sinensis), due to it being mass farmed for the food industry. It is considered a delicacy, and various body parts are utilized as health and vitality tonics. Hatchlings are also regularly available in the pet industry. They are usually a drab light-brown color, but albino morphs have been successfully bred, resulting in a beautiful animal. The albinos have a whitish-pink base color, with variable colors of yellow, peach and orange flowing throughout, and highlighting a “ladder” or “backbone” shape on the top of the shell.
The Chinese soft-shelled also has a unique adaption that allows it to be tolerant of less-than-ideal water conditions. Most turtles process and excrete the waste byproduct urea through the kidneys and out through the cloaca (a common opening for both excretion and reproduction). Studies have shown that Chinese soft-shelled turtles can excrete up to 50 percent more urea through their mouth than through their cloaca. This is thought to be done by flushing the mouth out with fresh water and expelling the urea waste out with it. This could be an adaption to the Chinese soft-shelled turtle’s ability to live in brackish water and even venture into salt water. The polluting salt does not have to travel through the turtle’s body, where it could cause tissue chemical imbalances and overload the kidneys. Imagine if you could drink something and then spit pee back out of your mouth—kidney disease would probably drop dramatically, but mouthwash sales would skyrocket! How about a kiss? No thank you, I’m good!
Getting back on topic, the soft-shelled turtle is considered by some to be the most aquatic of all freshwater turtles. This characteristic, as well as the urea process, can be accomplished by the soft-shelled turtle’s ability to “breathe” underwater. All soft-shells are thought to have this ability, but the waste processes are species-specific to the Chinese soft-shelled. The Chinese soft-shells in one study (by Ip,Y.K.; Loong, A.M.; Lee, S.M.L.; Ong, J.L.Y.; Wong, W.P.; Chew, S.F. in 2012) would submerge their heads for up to two hours during the “mouth washing/rinsing” process. Two hours! If you have ever watched a resting soft-shelled turtle underwater, they appear to be swallowing constantly, with a rhythmic pulsing around the jaw and through the neck area. Without getting too scientific, there is a process in the throat where water is pumped or forced over several “fingers,” which extract oxygen much like gills in a fish. Soft-shelled turtles are lay-and-wait hunters, and this feature also allows them to maximize this style and stay motionless in one place for longer periods of time. Once mobile, however, I believe the soft-shelled would need access to air, as the body’s oxygen needs would soon increase past the ability of this process.
North American Soft-Shells
Rounding out the most commonly available species, we have the soft-shelled turtles from North America. There are three main species: the spiny soft-shelled, the smooth soft-shelled and the Florida soft-shelled. All reside natively and are found mostly throughout the eastern and central United States.
The spiny soft-shelled (Apalone spinifera ssp.), as the scientific name suggests, can be distinguished from the two other species by having small spines or spikes along the top of the carapace, with a greater concentration toward the rear. There are six subspecies (A. s. spinifera, A. s. hartwegi, A. s. aspera, A. s. guadalupensis, A. s. pallid and A. s. emoryi), with most retaining the variable and attractive spots on their shells, as well as the yellow and black stripes on their face from their youth into adulthood. As with all soft-shelled turtle species, the males stay smaller than the females, often remaining under 9 inches, whereas a large female can reach 18 inches.
The smooth soft-shelled turtle (Apalone mutica ssp.) has two subspecies (A. m. mutica and A. m. calvata), and just as the name states, it has no spines, bumps or protrusions on its shell. They are the smallest of the native species, with males staying under 8 inches and females under 15 inches. Their small size makes them good candidates to be kept in captivity, but they are rather drab looking. Young smooth soft-shells are a brownish/olive color, with small black spots or speckling. These spots fade as they approach adulthood, with the black mottling becoming the base color.
The Florida soft-shelled turtle (Apalone ferox) is the largest species in North America, and the young are the most colorful. They have small bumps on their carapaces, and their shell shape is more oblong compared to the round shell of the spiny soft-shelled. They are also more stout and heavy-bodied than the other two species. With a female having the potential to reach 2 feet, it can make for an impressive animal when full grown.
The young of the Florida soft-shells are brightly spotted on a light background. The shell is outlined with white, yellow or orange, and the head and neck are striped with the same colors. Unfortunately, these colors fade with age, resulting in a solid brownish-green “lake- bottom” color as adults. Albinos of this species have been hatched out, as well as uniquely patterned and colored individuals with names like “High Orange” and the “Clown.” The former is a bright-orange animal with a leopard-like pattern on the shell, and the latter has an attractive coloration of yellow and black on the legs and shell. It has not been determined if these are breedable morphs or just garishly colored individuals. They are beautiful animals, and it would be worth setting up a breeding project to study and determine their genetics.
All of the aforementioned species make good candidates for captivity. As stated, males remain smaller into adulthood and tend to retain more of their colors. Males also have a reputation for being more aggressive, so there’s a trade-off. No matter the sex, I find them all visually appealing, especially the lines and face stripes of the spiny soft-shells.
Please note, due to the soft-shelled turtles’ consideration as a delicacy, many countries and provinces throughout the world have put limitations on the import/export and harvesting of wild species. Even here in the United States, several states have rules about how many one may possess, as well as the times of the year when they may be collected. These laws are constantly changing, so be sure to stay up to date with your particular state’s Fish and Game regulations.
Handle with Care
Obviously, the best candidate for captivity is a hatchling or young turtle. (Be aware that since the federal laws were passed in 1975, all turtles sold under 4 inches must be sold for scientific, educational or exhibition purposes, not for commercial sales.) Any wild bad habits will not yet be developed, and the young adapt quicker to captivity. While most are even-tempered, the soft-shelled turtle is no joke when agitated. They are very fast on both land and in water, with land speeds being clocked at 15 miles per hour. When those three-clawed feet get moving at those speeds, coupled with a soft-shelled turtle’s powerful jaws designed for crushing mollusk prey, handling soft-shells can become a tricky endeavor. I almost had the first joint of my left index finger removed by a surprised smooth soft-shelled. Those rubbery lips cover sharp ridges, and the bite was lightning-quick and cut, scalpel-like, deep into my bone. Their ability to defend themselves needs to be respected, but as mentioned, most animals raised in captivity do not have such an attitude.
Scoop small turtles up in your palm, and with the other hand grasping the sides of their shells between the front and back legs. This allows them to be easily controlled. I prefer to handle larger turtles with one hand under their bellies and one on top, like a sandwich. Captive-raised specimens seem to tolerate this method relatively well—just watch out for the claws and that long neck.
With really large or wild-acting specimens, a different method is employed. When the turtles move their legs quickly, trying to escape, they become unstable and a certain amount of strength is needed to keep them in one place and prevent them from rocking or jerking free. Keep the head away from your body. I approach these types of turtles from the rear and grasp the anterior lip of the shell right behind the neck. Pressure from my knuckles prevents the long, snake-like neck and head from reaching back and biting me. The posterior part of the shell is then grabbed around the tail, making sure to stay clear of the flailing rear legs.
I have heard of some recommending to grab a soft-shelled by its tail, much like a snapping turtle, but even the largest males lack enough tail length for my preference. Pick up in the above manner and keep the head faced downward and away from your body. This takes some practice and confidence, but it can be used successfully to move large, aggressive specimens. It might be hard to get a visual from my above description, so I refer the reader to Roger Conant’s excellent Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. At the beginning of the book is a section about handling reptiles, and there is a picture of the above-described method being utilized. Stay vigilant. The Florida soft-shelled turtle’s Latin name “ferox” means ferocious. Handle with care. But if a gentle, slow and consistent method is used, soft-shelled turtles will come to realize that you mean them no harm and will allow themselves to be moved easily. This results in a more enjoyable experience for all involved.
Keeping soft-shelled turtles in captivity is relatively simple, with the only hindrances being the amount of space available and the amount of money you wish to spend on the enclosure. Soft-shelled turtles are active in the aquarium and some species can grow large enough to require special housing. All captive turtles require basic necessities to live comfortably and stay healthy in captivity. These are access to full-spectrum lighting for basking and vitamin/mineral metabolism, a large enough enclosure with plenty of clean water for exercise, and a well-balanced diet. This list is by no means complete, but those are the required basics, and if they are followed, other actions may not be necessary.
Although soft-shelled turtles are primarily aquatic, a basking spot out of the water with access to full-spectrum light rays is mandatory. Some keepers have stated that, due to their predominantly aquatic nature, basking spots are not necessary. I disagree, and even if it is not used that often, one needs to be provided just in case. They would have the opportunity to use one in the wild, so we need to give them that same chance in captivity.
Baby soft-shelled turtles, especially the Florida species, are prone to shell problems. Although not fully understood, access to natural sunlight or artificial full-spectrum lighting have lessened these problems. The rays and radiation helps any fungal or bacterial infections to dry out and be healed by one of nature’s best antimicrobials, sunlight. For the light above the basking spot, the light spectrum is more important than the heat, so choose your bulb accordingly. Soft-shells are diurnal by nature, so in the evening, turn off the light and allow natural lighting to set a natural photoperiod for well-being.
Protect the Shell
As stated, soft-shelled turtles are active and powerful swimmers, and they require some room to move about. Given that they lack the bony protective armor of other turtles, it has been my experience that they do not handle fouled or dirty water as well as other species. Lack of clean water can provide a start to the aforementioned shell problems. I am sure you have all seen large, wild water turtles with their shells covered with algae. This could be potentially fatal to the soft-shelled turtle. Soft-shelled turtles have a naturally occurring layer of bacteria or “slime” like a fish. That is why small scratches or bumps, which would not affect another species of turtle, can cause such problems with soft-shelled turtles, including the displacement of this protective layer. I always wet my hands before touching or handling soft-shells to help prevent any problems.
Keeping the water well filtered and clean prevents the build-up of potentially harmful bacteria. The larger the volume of water, the more time required between water changes due to the water fouling. Plus more water gives the turtle room to swim and exercise, which contributes to mental well-being. I have seen soft-shells that have outgrown their enclosures and can hardly turn around, let alone go swim. It is sad to see such a gracefully swimming creature penned up like that.
I will now describe the setup I have used to successfully keep soft-shelled turtles indoors. We will discuss other options as well, but I have had good luck with this method, adapting the conditions to best suit the soft-shelled turtles’ needs.
First, you will need a large tank. Even a baby soft-shell will outgrow a 10-gallon aquarium quickly. Starting off with an enclosure that will house the turtle when it’s full grown will save money in the long run, with a one-time set up fee as opposed to several “upgrade payments” as the turtle grows. The width is more important than the depth, so you want a wider as opposed to taller tank. Some recommend keeping the whole tank shallow enough that the turtle can reach the water’s surface with its head while resting on the bottom, from any point in the tank. This works fine, as the soft-shelled turtle likes to burrow in the sand while still being able to reach the air for oxygen.
I provide a burrowing area a few inches beneath the surface of the water so the turtle can breathe while buried and at rest, with deeper water in the rest of the tank to allow it to swim freely and exercise. To do this, create a “sandbox” by siliconing the edge of a horizontal piece of glass, acrylic or plastic to one side of the tank, to create a platform that extends from the side, from front to back. Another strip is attached vertically along the exposed edge to create a lip. The height of the lip dictates how deep the burrowing substrate in the sandbox will be and helps keep the substrate in place. Be sure the substrate used is fine-grained and smooth; due to their lack of armored skin or bony plates, soft-shells are apt to get scratches or lesions as a result of burrowing into substrates made of pointy or sharp materials, such as some aquarium gravels. A piece of PVC plastic attached to the bottom of the platform will serve as a pillar, supporting the sandbox from below.
Create a darkened hiding area beneath the platform using a few pieces of driftwood for cover (again, avoid anything with pointy edges). This, along with the burrowing area, will allow your turtle to hide and relax by not always being out in the open. Again, anything that can be done to make the habitat more natural will help keep its stress levels down. I prefer to keep the tank relatively uncluttered; this helps keep the bacteria levels down and makes for easier cleaning.
I remember years back, when I was in my landscaped-vivaria stage, I spent days planting and building a tank for a small Florida soft-shelled turtle. I was so proud of my artistic rendition, it looked just like a mini pond, complete with plants, wood, cage furnishings and the whole works. I placed the turtle in the tank and left it alone to acclimate. After an hour I checked on him, and it looked like a bomb went off in the tank. There were leaves and plants floating, wood bobbing—total and thorough destruction. The filter was all but smoking from being overworked. The turtle was resting from his workout on the basking ramp, with what could be described as a look of satisfaction on his face, no doubt pleased with himself at a job well done. I spend days creating, the soft-shelled turtle spends minutes destroying. So now, I keep my set-ups simple.
If you do choose to go the waterscaped route, make sure any furnishings are smooth and well-secured. Soft-shelled turtles are strong, and you don’t need them pulling anything down on themselves. For the basking area, the style can be the same as the burrowing area previously described, only the platform’s surface will be above the water, without the sand and lip. Angle the platform slightly or attach a ramp to it that extends underwater a few inches to allow the turtle easy access. Cover it with dabs of clear silicon to provide traction. If a more natural look is desired, cover the platform with a thick layer of silicon and press a coating of sand or smooth aquarium gravel firmly into that. Once the silicon dries—bingo!—you have a sand bar. Keep in mind that any sand or gravel that is not siliconed firmly in place to the plastform may be yanked free by the turtle’s claws as it climbs up.
Make sure the top of the enclosure is tall enough that the turtle cannot reach it from anywhere within, especially if a lid is not used. I have seen soft-shelled turtles take a couple of laps around the tank to pick up speed and try to jump out. I have also seen them use their necks as a fulcrum to try and pull themselves out!
For such busy, carnivorous animals, a good filter system is needed. Don’t skimp on the filtration. Too much is better than not enough. I have used up to a 700-gallon-a-minute filter in a 125-gallon tank. Keeping the water as clean as possible is mandatory for shell and skin health.
There are many different types of filters on the market, including sump tank refugium, where water is passed through filters in a separate tank and then back into the primary tank; mechanical filters, which are hung on the tank; and canister filters, which are also placed on the outside of the aquarium. All have pros and cons, but canister filters are easy to use, powerful and ready to go right out of the box. Just make sure everything is secure and covered to prevent the turtle from getting to any hardware. Some tanks come pre-drilled with compartments already installed for this. You can even get tanks custom made, or make one yourself to suit your needs. Just remember, although glass is less expensive than acrylic, it is heavier. I have both glass and acrylic 55-gallon long tanks. I need help moving the glass one, but I can grab the acrylic one and go. The only downside to acrylic is that it scratches easily, so it is probably not the best choice for a nice display tank housing a clawed turtle.
For water specifics, soft-shelled turtles require a pH of 6.0 to 7.0 (slightly acidic) and a temperature of 72 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Not much range here, and although soft-shelled turtles can tolerate other conditions, the closer you can get to the above numbers will just benefit the turtles in the long run. Most tap water is in the 5.0- to 7.0-pH range, so that can be a good place to start. I am fortunate enough to have access to clean well water, without the additives of city or processed water. I have not had any problems using this water on either juveniles or adults, including turtles that came through with shell problems.
For heating, I have used a submersible tube-style heater, placed underneath the basking area, in the same area where the water re-enters the tank from the filter. The heater is set for the top of the soft-shelled turtles’ required range (80 degrees), and with the returning water circulating past it, as well as the volume of water in the tank due to the exercise/swim area, this creates a temperature range that allows the turtle to thermoregulate. The above temperature range is specific, but it can vary a few degrees either way without any harmful effects. If the water is too cool, their metabolism will slow down and the turtles will have trouble digesting food; too hot, and the turtle can overheat, possibly causing death. Keep the high side temperature under 80 degrees, and everything should be fine.
If the heating tube is accessible to the turtle, you should have a protective barrier around it to prevent the turtle from damaging the heater and possibly injuring itself. That is another benefit to pre-drilled tanks—the heating elements can be placed down in the corner compartments, thus protected. Heat tape attached to a thermostat can also be placed under one end of the tank (though with the depth of water I prefer to provide, I have better luck with an in-tank heater). When using any electrical equipment around water, make sure an aquarium-style circuit breaker is used in case anything is damaged by the turtle. That way, everything will shut down, avoiding any shocks or hazards.
The setup described here illustrates one method I have used to successfully keep soft-shelled turtles in a display aquarium. I recommend talking to an aquarium store expert for additional advice. New products, efficient heaters and filters, proper use of them, and setting up and controlling water quality can all be explained in more depth to get a better understanding of their use.
Keeping soft-shelled turtles does not have to be involved and complicated. As long as the soft-shelled turtles’ basic needs are met, other containers can be used. I have kept them in Rubbermaid containers, children’s wading pools and even in horse watering troughs. There are also turtle tubs on the market with both wet and dry sides already built into them. All of these are easier and less expensive than aquarium setups, but they often don’t look as nice.
That said, other such enclosures have all been used to successfully raise and even breed soft-shelled turtles, even though they may involve more physical work with more cleaning and water changes and such. An aquarium-style enclosure can be set up, and with the right filtration system, can be left alone for much of the time. Tub-style enclosures, if used without a filtration system, will require more frequent draining and scrubbing, which is more invasive to the turtles. On the other hand, this may result in a more thorough cleaning with better disinfecting properties. I set tubs up in the same manner as my aquariums, with the basking spot, hiding spots, etc. I also use a small aerator to stir up the water and prevent it from becoming stagnant. Heat can be provided with heat tape or a heat pad at one end (I usually have less water volume in the tubs, so this type of heating works OK with them). A basking light could be used, but it would have to be monitored. I am leery of hot lamps near plastic. For heat I like heat pads, as they are more easily controlled, temp-wise, and I run less risk of a fire or a plastic tub melting. Full-spectrum lighting tubes should also be used.
If you live in a warm climate, or at least during the summer months, soft-shelled turtles can be kept outdoors. Keep them out of constant direct sunlight and make sure there is a always a shady spot available in the enclosure. Cut drainage holes toward the top of more shallow containers to avoid them flooding during a rainstorm. Keep an eye out for predators, such as cats and dogs, but especially raccoons and opposums, messing with your turtles. These animals relish a meal of hatchling turtles.
Soft-shelled turtles can be kept in outdoor ponds, similar to how koi fish are kept. Some ponds are simple and others are waterscaped masterpieces. Just like with the aquariums, you can spend as much or as little as your heart desires and wallet allows. If this route is chosen, talk to a professional beforehand. Make sure you are armed with the knowledge of the soft-shelled turtles’ biological and physiological needs, and anything that will help you stabilize these requirements in a pond situation. This will save problems in the future.
Feeding soft-shelled turtles is not difficult. Adults are carnivorous and feed on a wide range of fish, mollusks, insects, amphibians and even carrion in the wild. If it swims or crawls, an animal is at risk for a soft-shelled turtle’s lay-and-wait hunting strategy. These turtles are not picky.
Feeder minnows and goldfish, earthworms and night crawlers, waxworms, crickets and even frozen-thawed (size appropriate) rodents can be offered to pet soft-shelled turtles, along with any of several commercially manufactured aquatic turtle diets. Fish-flavored cat kibble, along with fish pellets, are also usually accepted. I surveyed more than 20 pelleted diets to determine ideal nutrient ratios. The average protein levels were 38.3 percent, average fat was 7.6 percent and the fiber levels averaged 3.5 percent. The other 49.5 percent was accounted for by carbohydrates (soy, wheat, corn, etc.). Carbohydrates provide energy and allow the other nutrients to work by adding extra calories. The fat and protein are most important for growth and development. These numbers are based on scientific findings for optimum turtle health, so use them as a guideline when formulating a diet.
Most turtles can be trained to eat pellets, with different-sized pellets available for different-sized turtles. Pellets make feeding easy and less messy, and they can be supplemented with natural foods to provide a wide range of nutrients. I believe that the key to avoiding any dietary-related problems is variety. Exposing your soft-shells to a diverse range of food items allows them to obtain all the necessary macro- and micronutrients required for good shell and body growth and maintenance. Incomplete diets with improper calcium and phosphorous ratios, coupled with a lack of vitamin D3, can cause metabolic bone disease, which manifests itself in soft-shelled turtles with the shell literally “cupping,” or curling up along its edges. Vitamin D3 is responsible for balancing the calcium and phosphorous levels, making it a critical component in shell health.
Proper dietary nutrient levels and access to sunlight (or full-spectrum light if kept indoors) will head off this dilemma. Also, proper vitamin A levels prevent “swollen-eye syndrome,” which can cause the eyes to bug out and eventually swell shut. Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, is added to many pelleted feeds, as it prevents and helps clear up inflammation that can result from diets too high in fatty acids, such as an exclusive diet of goldfish or other oily fish. I have also used small tablets of brewer’s yeast, alfalfa and vitamin/mineral tablets used for dogs once a week, mixed in with the pellets to ensure all nutrient levels are met.
When supplementing, a little goes a long way, and unless you are trying to correct a dietary-related problem, use supplements sparingly. Mix it up for the best nutrition!
I feed soft-shelled turtles once a day, two to five times a week.
The more frequent feedings are reserved for young turtles with a higher metabolism due to their faster growth. Also, studies have shown that hatchling and young soft-shelled turtles are more omnivorous, and their diets contain more vegetable matter than does the adults’, no doubt allowing the young to obtain more vitamins and minerals required for proper development. Again, here is where the pelleted diets can be of benefit.
Once soft-shelled turtles become larger, their portions and frequency of feedings needs to be watched closer. Unnaturally fast growth from “power feeding” or overfeeding can cause health problems from obesity, heart and circulatory defects, and chemical imbalances within the turtles’ body. In the wild, soft-shelled turtles have to work harder for their meals, and more activity leads to fewer stored calories. Fluctuating temperatures in the wild also affect the metabolic process, requiring less food at times. Start with portions roughly the size of the turtles’ neck and head area, and adjust from there. Long-term captives adjust to their conditions so well, and become so calm and inactive, that I have seen some of the Florida species that almost looked cartoonish, with fat rolls on their necks and fat oozing from between their shells around their legs and tails. These turtles looked like Jabba the Hut pressed between two trash can lids. They were obviously content in captivity, but this condition is detrimental for long-term health. Properly monitored and proportioned diets using a variety of foods is the key.
Housing Safety Tip
As stated earlier, scratches and bumps can quickly become infected and even lead to soft-shell death. This is one reason I prefer to keep soft-shelled turtles singly, or at the very most, in breeding pairs. Some keepers have good luck keeping several soft-shells together, and even mixing them with other turtle species. Feeding in such community situations can be an excitable time, though, and can result in injuries from the turtles banging into each other going after the food. You can try to avoid this by keeping multiple turtles in a larger enclosure, but there are always those turtles that will jump right into the fray to get it on with their fellow cagemates.
Chinese soft-shells are often kept together for farming purposes, and they are particularly prone to a mold that causes a “white-spot” fungal disease that can lead to anorexia and death if not treated. Usually, this is due to the overcrowding of the mass-farmed turtles, resulting in injuries and higher stress levels that can lower the immune system. Also, as stated earlier, baby Florida soft-shelled turtles are prone to skin and shell problems that appear as small white spots or lesions on the shell and body.
Optimal living conditions can help prevent these problems, but if they should arise, all is not lost. I have had good luck using tea tree oil, painted on the offending spots and then allowed to dry. Tea tree oil is a natural antibacterial and antifungal that can help if the problem is caught early and not too advanced. For more severe situations, I have found spray Bactine to work well. It is a benzalkonium and lidocaine medication that is in a non-alcohol base. I have used it on frogs and salamanders, as well, with no harmful side effects. Spraying once a day has promoted rapid healing in most cases. I have also used triple-antibiotic ointment or Neosporin for infected cuts. These products contain three topical antibacterials that will help with mild gram-plus and gram-negative infections.
If a fungus is thought to be the culprit, I alternate an antibiotic ointment with a 1-percent clotrimazole cream (an antifungal) that can be found in the foot-care aisle at most pharmacies. Apply once or twice a day to the affected area and let dry, or at least absorbed, before letting the turtle return to
If a problem arises that does not respond to any of the above treatments, it’s time for a trip to the veterinarian. Cultures of the lesions or injuries can be taken, and appropriate medications administered. Your vet might prescribe an injection, an oral medication if the turtle is still feeding, or medication to be administered throughout the tank water, as is done to treat scale rot in fish. Your vet will decide and follow the appropriate action.
Breeding takes place in the spring, with egg laying beginning in March in the warmer climates. Female soft-shells can nest several times a year, usually laying between eight to 24 eggs each time. The females emerge from the water and lay their eggs in dug-out nests in soft, sandy soil. If attempting captive breeding, a dry area with a deep layer of the appropriate substrate must be provided to prevent any retained eggs or egg binding. Females reach sexual maturity at a carapace length of roughly 9 to 10 inches, with males reaching maturity at a length of 5 to 7 inches. Of course, smaller species, such as the smooth soft-shelled turtle, will reach sexual maturity at a smaller size. Again, males are smaller than females and have more prominent tails. If obtaining hatchlings or young turtles, you can buy them sexed and be on your way.
Once laid, the eggs can be placed in vermiculite or another suitable incubation medium and kept at a temperature of 80 degrees with 80 percent humidity. Water turtle eggs require higher humidity levels than land turtles’, so a hygrometer (an instrument to measure humidity) should be placed in the container with the eggs to make sure the levels don’t go too high and “drown” the eggs or go too low and dry them out.
The babies hatch after an average incubation period of 60 to 80 days, depending on the temperature. Young soft-shelled turtles are between 1 and 1½ inches long at hatching, and they can live off their attached yolk for up to two weeks. Provide an appropriate container with shallow water and several hiding places to help them feel secure. Once the yolk is absorbed, offer hatchlings small insects, worms or size-appropriate pellets, and they should be off and running (or more accurately, swimming)!
With albino and aberrant soft-shelled morphs available, and others yet to be discovered, breeding soft-shelled turtles can be a beneficial and rewarding endeavor, well worth the time and effort.
Always Do Your Research
I hope this article has been helpful in your quest for information about caring for soft-shelled turtles. They are really neat and unique animals, and I highly recommend one for consideration as a pet.
Mike Morgan has kept and bred various local and exotic reptiles for close to 40 years. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.