How to Set Up an Aquatic Turtle Tank
Creating your Turtle's World
The place where something lives is called its habitat. 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 to keep 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 and forget about substrate, plants, and other fancy things. Then once you have the important things done, you can work on making it fancy later.
What You Need to Set Up a Turtle Habitat
The most important things that you will need for your turtle habitat -- the things you absolutely must have -- are:
- A big enough tank and stand. You must use a tank designed to hold water, like a fish tank, not a tank designed to hold terrestrial (land-dwelling) reptiles like iguanas or desert tortoises. Terrestrial reptile tanks are not strong enough to fill with water.
- A basking area. This is a dry place where the turtle will "sun itself." Basking is something that aquatic turtles must do to survive and be healthy.
- Proper lighting to generate warmth and the different kinds of light that turtles need.
- One or more heaters to keep the water in the turtle's habitat in the correct temperature range. You should choose stainless steel aquarium heaters or heaters enclosed in plastic cages. Turtles can shatter glass heaters and get electrocuted and die! You will also need at least two thermometers: One to measure the water temperature, and one to measure the air temperature at the basking area.
- A system to keep the water in the turtle's habitat clean. Almost always this means using a filter. If you don't use a filter, you will have to change all the water in the tank every few days.
- An aquarium water test kit or test strips to check the water chemistry and quality. Test strips are easier for beginners, but test kits are more accurate.
Other things that are nice to have, but that you don't absolutely need, include:
- A substrate, which is something to line the bottom of the turtle tank, like gravel or Flourite. Unless you plan to use live plants that need something to root in, or to keep digging turtles like softshell turtles, you don't absolutely need a substrate.
- An aquarium aeration pump to put air in the water.
- Decorations, such as artificial plants or an aquarium backing.
- Live plants.
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. You are creating your turtle's entire world! So unless you have a turtle impatiently waiting for the keys to his or her new place, take your time and enjoy the experience.
Setting Up a Turtle Habitat in a Tank
This page deals with setting up an indoor habitat in a "fish tank." Many people build outdoor ponds (or even indoor ponds) for their turtles, and that's an excellent idea if you have the room, the money, and the right kind of climate. But for most people, 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 storage containers, others use small-sized children's wading pools (but not with the children in them!), and still other people have tanks custom-designed to fit some spot in their homes. 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. There are several things to think about when planning a turtle habitat in a tank. 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. So you should have 10 gallons of water for each inch of the first turtle's length, plus another five gallons of water for each inch of the second turtle's length. This is the minimum amount of water you should have. More would be better.
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 it won't provide nearly enough vertical swimming room for turtles who like deep water, like Painted Turtles and Red-Eared Sliders. For turtles who are poor swimmers like Musk, Mud, and Reeves turtles, however, a shallower tank is better and safer.
It's 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 flip over and right itself, it probably will drown and die. So if your turtle is five inches wide, you must have at least five inches of water depth in the tank -- minimum.
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 like the one on the right, 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.
One of the easiest types of basking areas to use are the floating, shelf-type basking areas like the turtle dock in the picture, which looks like a rock, but is really made of plastic. Floating docks are easy to use, automatically adjust to the water level and don't waste the swimming space underneath. They're a very good choice for beginners.
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. Another option is an above-tank basking area, which will let you fill your tank closer to the top to give the turtles more room to swim.
The above-tank basking area that I use on the turtle tank in this site's video stream is a home-made one. I made it from wood, Plexiglas, and a piece of "egg-crate" light diffuser. You can't see it in most of pictures on the site because they were taken before I built it, but you can see a picture of it here.
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. But basically, you are going to need lights to provide visible light (artificial daylight), warmth, UVA, and UVB light. We talk more about these different kinds of light and the lamps needed to make them on the turtle lighting page.
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 like. But I think sand is a terrible substrate. 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.
If you do choose to use sand, use clean, fine sand (like the sand they sell for children's sand boxes) 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.
Aquarium Gravel is another substrate that I don't like. It's not a very good plant substrate because it contains little or no nutrient value 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.
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 (like the stand) can be home-made or improvised. You can also find all kinds of turtle supplies at Amazon.
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.