Setting Up an Aquatic Turtle Tank
Creating your Turtle's Habitat
The place where a turtle (or anything else) lives is called its habitat (pronounced HAB-it-at). If you live in a house, then the house is your habitat. This part of the site talks about how to set up a habitat, or home, for your turtle. For most new turtle hobbyists, the easiest kind of habitat to build is in a tank, like the tanks used for fish, so that's what we'll be discussing.
I hope you're reading this page because you're planning to buy or adopt a turtle, because the best time to set up a turtle habitat is before you get the turtle.
Of course, sometimes things don't work out that way. Sometimes people get the turtle first (usually a baby turtle at a fair or carnival), and then realize that it needs a better home than that little plastic carrier.
If you already have a turtle and need to set up a habitat quickly because it's outgrown its home, then probably the best thing you can do is quickly set up a simple, larger habitat. The most important things an aquatic turtle needs are proper heating, proper lighting, clean water, and the right food. Concentrate on those things first. Then once you have that done, you can work on building a fancier habitat if you want to.
If you're lucky enough to be planning your turtle purchase or adoption before getting a turtle, however, then you can take your time and create a habitat to be proud of. After all, building your turtle's little world is part of the fun of the hobby; so unless you have a turtle impatiently waiting for the keys to his or her new place, take your time and enjoy the experience.
This page deals with setting up an indoor habitat in a tank. Many people build outdoor ponds for their turtles, and that's an excellent idea if you have the room and the right kind of climate. But for people like me who live in the city, building a pond isn't very practical. The landlord would be very unhappy.
Most aquatic turtle keepers who keep their turtles indoors use aquarium tanks designed for fish. Others prefer large Rubbermaid-type containers, others use small-sized children's wading pools (but not with the children in them!), and still others have tanks custom-designed. Some people even build indoor ponds for their turtles, which is really cool if you have the space -- and the money.
But most people use fish tanks, so that's what we're going to talk about.
Things to Consider when Setting Up a Turtle Tank
There are several things to think about when planning a turtle habitat. Let's look at the most important factors.
Tank Size, Shape, and Type
When deciding which tank to buy, the first and most important thing to consider is that the tank is able to hold water. This may seem silly and obvious, but some reptile tanks are designed for terrestrial reptiles (reptiles who live on land), and they will break and make a huge mess if you try to fill them with water. So use a tank designed to hold water, like a fish tank. (And if you use a previously-used tank, make sure it doesn't leak!)
The next most important thing to consider is the tank's size. If you can, try to get a tank big enough that your turtle will have ten gallons of water for every inch of carapace (upper shell) length when it reaches full size. This way you won't have to buy a bigger tank down the line. If you have more than one turtle, then size the tank for the first turtle, and add half again as much space for each additional turtle.
A tank that is too small will be much more work to keep clean. The water will be fouled much more quickly and will become unhealthy and smelly. Your turtle won't have enough room to swim in a too-small tank; and if you have more than one turtle, they will be more likely to fight.
The shape of the tank you select is also important. A tank with a low profile, like a 20-long, may be fine while your turtle is very young, but may not provide enough vertical swimming room for turtles who like deep water, like Painted Turtles and Red-Eared Sliders. But for turtles who are poor swimmers, like Musk, Mud, and Reeves turtles, a shallower tank is better and safer.
It's always very important that the water in the tank be deeper than the turtle is wide, so your turtle can flip itself upright if it gets turned upside-down in the water. If your turtle gets turned upside down in the water and there's not enough water for it to right itself, it probably will drown and die.
Land Area / Basking Area
Aquatic turtles need a dry basking area, which basically means a place where they can sun themselves (although the "sun," in this case, is usually a light bulb). The basking area can be a turtle dock, a log, or even just a rock. But whatever it is, it has to be big enough for the turtle to comfortably fit on, easy for the turtle to climb on to from the water, and high enough that the basking area doesn't stay wet.
I personally like floating, shelf-type basking areas like the one on the right, which looks like a rock, but is really made of foam. Floating docks automatically adjust to the water level and don't waste the swimming space underneath.
But a rock or log will work just fine, too. If you use something from nature, make sure to boil it first to kill any algae, germs, or harmful microorganisms. And always avoid anything with sharp edges in a turtle habitat. Your turtle could seriously hurt itself.
Most turtle keepers use a heat-proof metal screen cover on top of their tank. These screens are inexpensive and are important mainly because they help protect the turtles from things like broken glass from exploding lamp bulbs. The lamps used for turtle habitats get very hot and tend to explode if they get splashed with water, and sometimes even if they don't.
Tank covers can also be clamped to the tank to help prevent larger turtles from climbing out, which they can sometimes do if the distance between the top of the water or basking area and the rim of the tank is within the turtle's reach.
Don't use glass or plexiglas as a tank cover. Either one will filter out UVB rays that the turtle needs to survive, and the heat from the lamps may cause glass to shatter or plexiglas to melt.
Because even screen-type tank covers block some light and heat, you should adjust the lighting to be correct with the tank cover on the tank. When you have to remove the tank cover (for example, to feed your turtle or clean the tank), replace it as soon as possible so you don't overheat the habitat. If you're going to leave it off for more than a few minutes, turn off heat-producing lamps or move them a little farther away to keep the basking temperature from getting too hot.
Lighting is so important a subject for turtle keepers that it has its own page, which can be found here.
Choosing a Tank Substrate
The substrate is the stuff that covers the bottom of the tank or habitat, and there are lots of different opinions about what are the best and worst substrates to use. What follows here is my opinion. Others may disagree.
First of all, unless you are going to use live plants, there's really no reason to have a substrate at all for most popular aquatic turtle species like Sliders and Painteds. A glass bottom is easiest to clean and eliminates the possibility that your turtle will eat the substrate and be injured by it (which does sometimes happen).
Another easy-to-clean option is to use large, flat rocks. Remember to boil them first to kill any algae or germs.
If you're going to use live plants (except floating plants), or if you just want a substrate because you think it looks nice or creates a more natural environment, then you have several choices.
Fine sand is a popular substrate that many turtle hobbyists recommend. Personally, I think sand is a terrible substrate because I find it very difficult to keep clean even with frequent vacuuming. In my opinion, the only reason to use sand is if you're keeping turtles who like to dig in it, like softshell turtles. But that's just my opinion. Many other turtle keepers disagree with me and think sand is a great substrate that's easy to clean. Maybe I'm doing it wrong.
If you do choose to use sand, use fine sand and clean it thoroughly before putting it in the tank. You also have to clean it very frequently once the habitat is set up, or else pockets of poo and debris will cause your entire tank to become a big, stinky mess.
Gravel is another substrate that I don't like. It's not a very good plant substrate because it contains little or no nutrients for the plants. Also, turtles sometimes eat gravel; so unless it's very smooth and the pieces are large enough that a turtle can't eat them, I don't think it's worth the risk.
Fluorite. Personally, I think Fluorite is the best choice for a planted turtle tank. Fluorite is a porous clay gravel that's designed for use in planted aquariums. It's an excellent root medium for plants, it looks very natural and attractive, and I've never seen a turtle eat it. However, when you first fill the tank, it will make the water look like mud. I just let the dust settle, and then then let the filter run for a few days with nothing in it except floss (with several floss changes), before introducing the turtles. Undergravel filters are a great idea when using Fluorite.
Other Things You'll Need
In addition to the above, there are other accessories you'll need for your turtle habitat, like a heater (or better yet, two heaters in case one stops working) to heat the water, thermometers to measure the temperature, a stand for the tank or habitat, and lights and a way to attach them. All of these things can be purchased at pet shops that sell aquarium and reptile supplies, and some of them can be home-made or improvised.
We have some pages dedicated to these things. Please read the pages about heat, lighting, and water quality before setting up your turtle's habitat. If you're planning to include live plants, also read our plants page.
And remember: This is a hobby, so it's supposed to be fun. Take your time and build a habitat that your turtle will love, and that you will be proud of.