African sideneck turtles (Pelusios casteneus) are also known as the West African mud turtle. They are a 9-11” long, semi-aquatic, diurnal reptile found throughout western and central Africa. These turtles prefer freshwater habitats such as swamps, marshes, rivers, ponds, and even mud holes.
African sideneck turtles have large heads, smooth shells, semi-webbed feet, and two small, stubby barbels under the chin. Coloring is generally medium to dark brown and fairly uniform, with pattern only found on top of the head.
African sideneck turtles generally do well in captivity, and are advertised as beginner-level reptiles due to their hardiness and personable dispositions. However, they are still fairly large turtles, and require specialized care. With good care, they can live up to 50 years.
Minimum aquarium size for African sideneck turtles
The minimum size reptile enclosure for housing one adult African sideneck turtle requires 90-110 gallons of water, no deeper than 1.5x the length of the turtle itself. Of course, bigger is always better!
If your local climate and housing situation allows, African sideneck turtles tend to do well when housed in an outdoor pond for at least part of the year. If this is a possibility for you, make sure that the pond is no deeper than 1.5x the length of the turtle, and that there is a retaining wall at least 24” tall and buried at least 6” into the ground to prevent potential escape.
It’s best not to house more than one African sideneck turtle per enclosure.
Do African sideneck turtles need UVB?
Yes! African sideneck turtles require exposure to appropriate amounts of UVB in order to maintain good health and wellbeing. Providing UVB lighting to your turtle offers several benefits, including all of the vitamin D that their body needs, better appetite and activity, and a stronger immune system.
The best UVB bulbs for African sideneck turtles are:
- Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 5.0
- Arcadia Forest 6%
The UVB bulb should be half the length of the enclosure and housed in a reflective fixture like the Arcadia ProT5 or Vivarium Electronics. Place the lamp close to the heat lamps, about 13-14” above the basking platform. UVB bulbs decay over time, so don’t forget to replace your bulb every 12 months to maintain good performance.
Since African sideneck turtles are a day-active species, it’s best practice to provide extra illumination via a strong LED or T5 HO 6500K daylight lamp. This helps better replicate daylight and is also good for any live plants you may be using.
Lights should be on for 12 hours/day and turned off at night. However, if you are housing your turtle outdoors in a pond, then supplementary lighting is not required.
Best temperature for African sideneck turtles
Unlike mammals, which control their own body temperature internally, African sideneck turtles and other reptiles rely on external sources to regulate their body temperature and metabolism.
Different reptiles require different temperatures for best health. For African sideneck turtles, the basking area should be around 95°F, and the water should stay under 85°F, but no cooler than 70°F. Juveniles may require higher water temperatures of 80-85°F. Measure basking temperature with a digital probe thermometer, and water temperature with a high-quality aquarium thermometer.
Provide heat for your turtle with a cluster of at two halogen flood heat lamps clustered on one side of the enclosure and positioned over a sturdy basking branch or rock. Avoid ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective. Use higher wattage bulbs if they’re too cool, or use a plug-in lamp dimmer if they’re too warm.
If you are housing your turtle outdoors in an appropriate climate, heating equipment is not required.
Water maintenance for African sideneck turtles
African sideneck turtles are semi-aquatic reptiles, and spend most of their time in the water. This means that most of the enclosure should be water — in other words, you’ll be essentially maintaining a pond or aquarium with an accessible land area. Your turtle’s water must be kept as clean as possible to maintain the turtle’s health.
For filtration, you will need a canister-style filter capable of handling at least 2x the amount of water in the enclosure. For example, if you have an aquarium or pond with 110 gallons of water, you will need a filter rated for at least 220 gallons of water. This is one aspect of your setup where it’s very important to invest in excellent equipment!
You will also need to perform routine water changes. Once every 1-2 weeks, remove and replace approximately 30% of the enclosure’s total water volume. As essential as filters are, periodically removing “old” water and replacing it with “new” water helps prevent toxic compounds from building up. To make water changes easier, use a siphon or water pump.
Both indoor and outdoor enclosures require filtration and routine water changes.
How to decorate an African sideneck turtle aquarium
The first thing you’ll need to add to your aquarium is NOT optional: because African sideneck turtles are only semi-aquatic rather than fully-aquatic, you need to provide some “land” for the turtle to bask on. Ideally, this should be enough space for the turtle to bask, walk around a bit, and burrow. However, if that’s not possible, you can use a simple turtle basking platform. At minimum, this platform should be at least as large as the turtle itself, and tall enough to allow the turtle to completely dry off.
Décor is about more than just creating an attractive enclosure — it’s also about boosting the enclosure’s functionality. Here are some ideas:
- live/artificial plants
- hollow logs
- fine-particle aquatic substrate (ex: sand)
Whatever you choose to add, make sure to create at least a couple places where your turtle can hide from view. This helps them feel more secure!
What to feed to an African sideneck turtle
African sideneck turtles are omnivorous, which means that they need both plant- and animal-based foods in their diet to get the nutrition that they need. Here is a general feeding schedule to follow:
African sideneck turtles younger than 1 year:
- 50% protein / 50% vegetables
- protein food daily — as much as they’ll eat in 5-10 minutes
- vegetable food daily — roughly same amount as turtle’s shell size
- turtle pellets every other day — roughly same amount as turtle’s head size
African sideneck turtles older than 1 year:
- 25% protein / 75% vegetables
- protein food 1-2x/week — as much as they’ll eat in 5-10 minutes
- vegetable food daily — roughly same amount as turtle’s shell size
- turtle pellets 2-3x/week — roughly same amount as turtle’s head size
Animal-based foods for African sideneck turtles: crickets, earthworms, dubia roaches, freeze-dried shrimp/krill, frozen bloodworms, silkworms, snails, guppies, mollies, platies, mosquito fish
Vegetable foods for African sideneck turtles: collard greens, dandelion greens + flowers, endive, green leaf lettuce, kale, red leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, raw grated squash, carrots, green beans, raw grated sweet potato
Pellets for African sideneck turtles: Omega One Juvenile Turtle Pellets, Omega One Adult Turtle Sticks, Tetra ReptoMin, Zoo Med Natural Aquatic Turtle Food, Mazuri Aquatic Turtle Diet
How to handle your African sideneck turtle
Unlike some other reptiles, turtles aren’t the kind of pet that you can handle regularly. While African sideneck turtles definitely tend to tolerate it better than most, it’s best to stay hands-off most of the time.
If you want to try bonding with your pet, try tong-feeding it instead!
*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please further your research with high-quality sources. The more you know, the better you will be able to care for your pet!
"Pelusios castaneus" by Laurent Lebois © is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Hi Kristi — It sounds like your turtle is probably working through a bit of shock at its change in surroundings. Give him time to adjust and double-check to make sure your basking temps, water temps, and UVB lighting setup are all consistent with the parameters given in this care sheet. If the turtle continues not to eat even with the right temperatures and lighting, take him to an experienced reptile vet to make sure there isn’t some kind of illness at work.
I was given an African side neck turtle a couple of weeks ago. The tank was disgusting the filter was falling apart and had Brown slime on it I did a thorough cleaning of the tank and replaced filter. I am gradually getting everything he needs. They only had about 3 in of water in the tank. The turtle is years old. Since cleaning the tank he stays in the water almost constantly and sadly I haven’t been able to get anything to warm the water yet. He barely eats. Is this because he’s too cold or because he is not used to a clean environment yet? The poor thing doesn’t even know how to swim
Hi Deborah — It’s possible that your turtle is basking, just not when you’re around to see it (such as when you’re at work). However, we recommend double-checking your turtle’s temperatures just to be sure, as water that is too warm or a basking temp that is too cool can both result in the turtle staying in the water. Also make sure that the dock is large enough to accommodate your turtle’s whole body and that she is able to climb on top of it. If not, you may need a new dock with a more accessible ramp.
My side neck stays in the water and will not use her dock. Lighting is provided
Hi Noelle — Glad to hear your side necked turtle seems to be doing better! It’s possible that your turtle is just enjoying the privilege of having a basking area, but we recommend double-checking your water temperatures to make sure they’re not uncomfortably cool.