Musk turtles (Sternotherus odoratus) are also known as stinkpot turtles. They are a 4-5” long, aquatic, nocturnal reptile found throughout the eastern United States. These turtles prefer freshwater habitats such as ponds, lakes, marshes, swamps, and other slow-flowing bodies of water.
Musk turtles have large heads, a pointed snout, round pupils, relatively highly-domed shell, webbed feet, and a reduced plastron. Coloring is generally brown to black with two cream or yellow stripes on the head and neck.
Musk turtles generally do well in captivity, and make good beginner-level turtles due to their manageable size. With good care, they can live up to 50 years.
Do not steal wild turtles from the wild to keep as pets!
Minimum enclosure size for musk turtles
The minimum size enclosure for housing one adult musk turtle should be at least 36”L x 18”W x 16”H, but bigger is always better! Waterland tubs are particularly good for housing turtles, especially females since they need an area to lay infertile eggs.
If your local climate and housing situation allows, musk 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, a 100 gallon stock tank makes for a good enclosure. Make sure to top it with a wide mesh lid to keep out predators, though!
It’s best not to house more than one musk turtle per enclosure.
Do musk turtles need UVB?
Yes! Musk 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 musk 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 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 musk turtles
Unlike mammals, which control their own body temperature internally, musk turtles and other reptiles rely on external sources to regulate their body temperature and metabolism.
Different reptiles require different temperatures for best health. For musk turtles, the basking area should be 90-95°F, and the water should stay between 72-78°F. Juveniles may require higher water temperatures around 80°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. 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 musk turtles
Musk turtles are technically semi-aquatic reptiles, but they 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 40 gallons of water, you will need a filter rated for at least 80 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 enclosures require filtration and routine water changes.
How to decorate a musk turtle pond/aquarium
The first thing you’ll need to add to your aquarium is NOT optional: because musk 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. This is essential for females, but males can use a simple turtle basking platform since they don’t need a place to lay eggs. 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
- terracotta pots
- 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 a musk turtle
Musk 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:
Musk turtles <6 months old:
- protein food or pellets daily
Musk 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.
Animal-based foods for musk turtles: crickets, earthworms, dubia roaches, shrimp/krill, bloodworms, silkworms, snails, grasshoppers, clams
Vegetable foods for musk 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 musk turtles: Omega One Juvenile Turtle Pellets, Omega One Adult Turtle Sticks, Tetra ReptoMin, Zoo Med Natural Aquatic Turtle Food, Mazuri Aquatic Turtle Diet
Musk 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 musk turtle
Unlike some other reptiles, turtles aren’t the kind of pet that you can handle regularly. Musk turtles (particularly males) can be bitey, and they are known to secrete a foul-smelling orange liquid when alarmed.
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!
"Sternotherus odoratus * Sternotherus carinatus" by Laurent Lebois © is licensed under CC BY 2.0