Mud turtles (Kinosternon sp. ) are 4-7” long, semi-aquatic reptiles found throughout the southeastern US, Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. These turtles prefer shallow, slow-moving freshwater habitats such as wetlands, swamps, ponds, canals, and ditches. They are also often found in cattle tanks.
Mud turtles’ appearance varies by species. Generally speaking, they have large heads, a slightly hooked upper jaw, slightly flattened shells, fleshy barbels under the chin, and webbed feet. Coloring is generally brown to black with a lighter colored plastron, and some species have yellowish lines on the head and/or shell.
Mud turtles generally do well in captivity, and make good beginner-level turtles. With good care, they may have a 50+ year lifespan.
The most common mud turtles in the pet trade are the Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) and the Three Striped Mud Turtle (Kinosternon baurii).
Minimum enclosure size for mud turtles
The minimum size enclosure for housing one adult mud turtle should be at least 48”L x 18”W x 21”H, but bigger is always better! Waterland tubs are particularly good for housing mud turtles because they offer a shallow aquatic area and ramp that leads to a generous land area for basking and burrowing.
If your local climate and housing situation allows, mud turtles tend to do well when housed in an outdoor pond for at least part of the year. Waterland tubs work for this purpose as well, but make sure to top it with a wide mesh lid to keep out potential predators!
It’s best not to house more than one mud turtle per enclosure.
Do mud turtles need UVB?
Yes! Mud 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 mud turtles are:
- Zoo with 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 8-11” above the basking platform if there is mesh obstruction, and 13-15” away if no mesh. UVB bulbs decay over time, so don’t forget to replace your bulb every 12 months to maintain good performance.
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 14 hours/day during summer and 10 hours/day during winter. However, if you are housing your turtle outdoors in a pond, then supplementary lighting is not required.
Best temperature for mud turtles
Unlike mammals, which control their own body temperature internally, mud turtles and other reptiles rely on external sources to regulate their body temperature and metabolism.
Different reptiles require different temperatures for best health. For mud turtles, the basking area should have an air temperature of 86-92°F, and the water should stay between 75-78°F. Measure basking temperature with a digital probe thermometer, and water temperature with a high-quality aquarium thermometer.
Provide basking heat for your turtle with a halogen flood heat lamp on one side of the enclosure, positioned directly over the basking area at the same height as the UVB lamp. Avoid ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective. Use a higher wattage bulb if you need more heat, or use a plug-in lamp dimmer if it’s too warm.
If you need to heat your turtle’s water, use an aquarium heater rated for the amount of water in the enclosure and placed inside a protective plastic tube to prevent your turtle from getting burned by accidental contact.
If you are housing your turtle outdoors in an appropriate climate, heating equipment is not required.
Water maintenance for mud turtles
Given that mud turtles are semi-aquatic reptiles, the water portion of their enclosure is a pretty significant part of their life. 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 promote good 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 75 gallons of water, you will need a filter rated for at least 150 gallons of water. This is one aspect of your setup where it’s very important to invest in excellent equipment!
Make sure the filter is low-flow for minimal water disturbance — a strong current will stress your turtle! Alternatively, place a stone or other decor under the filter’s outflow to diffuse the current.
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 ponds require filtration and routine water changes.
Best substrate for mud turtles
Mud turtles spend a significant amount of time on land and like to burrow, so it’s important to have an area of ~10” of sandy soil within easy access at all times. Zoo Med Reptisoil works well for this purpose, or you can create your own mix of approximately 80% clean topsoil and 20% play sand (measured by volume).
Substrate isn’t required for the pond part of the enclosure, but it does improve its appearance and functionality, as mud turtles like to root around in it. Use mud or fine sand for this application.
Leaf litter and sphagnum moss can be used as part of the substrate on land or in the water.
How to decorate a mud turtle enclosure
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
- terracotta pots
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. Just make sure that these hidey-holes are big enough that the turtle can’t get stuck!
What to feed to a mud turtle
Mud 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:
Mud turtles <6 months old:
- protein food or pellets daily
Mud turtles >6 months old:
- protein food or pellets every other day
- vegetable food daily (for grazing)
A portion of protein food or pellets should be more or less the same size as your turtle’s head. A portion of vegetable food should be roughly the same size as your turtle’s shell.
Vegetable foods for mud turtles: spirulina algae wafers, duckweed, pond lily, eelgrass, water hyacinth, collard greens, dandelion greens, endive, green leaf lettuce, kale, red leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce
Pellets for mud turtles: Omega One Juvenile Turtle Pellets, Omega One Adult Turtle Sticks, Tetra ReptoMin, Zoo Med Natural Aquatic Turtle Food, Mazuri Aquatic Turtle Diet
Mud turtles are bottom-dwellers, so they generally prefer foods that sink to the bottom of the tank than foods that float at the top.
How to handle your mud turtle
Unlike some other reptiles, turtles aren’t the kind of pet that you can handle regularly. Mud turtles usually get stressed by handling, and will secrete a foul-smelling musk as a deterrent. 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!
"Kinosternon subrubrum hippocrepis (Mississippi Mud Turtle)" by Andrew Hoffman is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0