Australian Native freshwater turtles are a popular pet and for good reason. They are hardy and easy to care for, interesting to watch, able to be handled and taken out of the water, and they are full of personality. While there are licence restrictions in most states, in South Australia you don’t need a permit to keep them (although they must be captive bred – you can’t collect your own). These turtles have only a short breeding season with the babies being available from January through to around mid-year. Depending on how good the season is they may sell out later, sometimes sooner. Your freshwater turtle needs: suitable aquaria, filtration, decoration and of course food and treatments. We have several FAQ guides on freshwater turtles answering any turtle questions you may have about native freshwater turtles and their keeping.
This FAQ covers all you need to know about the care and keeping of Australian freshwater turtles.
What turtles are available as pets?
In South Australia, there are two species of native freshwater turtle available for aquariums. These are the Murray River shortneck (Emydura macquarii pictured at top left), and the Eastern long neck (Chelodina longicolis below right). Both of these species are now captive bred in South Australia. In other states, turtles are not as readily available and overseas there are completely different species available – this FAQ covers only the two species mentioned above, although care of other related species is similar.
Care is essentially the same for both of these species, although the long neck variety is a little more delicate, especially when small. Long necks may have a friendlier nature and are generally slightly slower growing than short necks, but there are otherwise no significant differences between the two.
Are they turtles or tortoises?
There has been debate about this point for a number of years, but most authorities, zoos, and herpetologists now classify them as freshwater turtles rather than tortoises. In the strictest definition, a turtle has flippers and lives in the ocean, emerging only to lay eggs, while a tortoise has feet and lives on land, only rarely venturing into water. Freshwater turtles have webbed feet (apart from the pignosed turtle which does have flippers) and are nearly completely aquatic, so it certainly makes more sense to call them freshwater turtles than tortoises.
When are they available?
Both species of turtles breed in late spring through to midsummer and the eggs hatch in early to mid-summer. Baby turtles are therefore available from either late December or early January through to April or May when supplies start to run low. In good breeding years when there are many babies, they may still be available in June and July, but this should not be relied upon. Late hatching turtles may occasionally be available even later in the year.
Adult and semi-adult turtles are available occasionally – usually when people who have bought them as babies are no longer able to care for them. If you are interested in obtaining a larger turtle, ask at your local pet or aquarium store. Aquariums shops usually keep a register of people wanting larger turtles so that they can notify them when a suitable animal becomes available. Alternatively, advertise in the local paper so that anyone wishing to sell a larger turtle can contact you directly.
Are they hard to look after?
If a turtle aquarium is set up properly and a proper diet is provided, then turtles are very easy to care for. They suffer from relatively few diseases and these are rare if the turtle is cared for as outlined here.
Do I need a permit?
Regulations for keeping freshwater turtles vary from state to state so you should check with your local authorities. In most states, a permit is required. In South Australia and the A.C.T. you do not need a permit to keep captive bred turtles, but turtles cannot be taken from the wild. It is illegal for turtles to be sent to other parts of the world, except in very rare circumstances (eg for zoos).
How big do freshwater turtles get?
Both species reach an eventual size of approximately 30cm shell length (about the size of a dinner plate.)
How fast do they grow?
The growth rate of turtles depends strongly on the feeding. At an average growth rate, full size will be reached in between 15 and 20 years, with the turtle growing to saucer size in around 5 years. However, turtles can grow much faster if they are fed more than is necessary.
A turtle can be kept small by limiting its feeding, but underfeeding is not recommended. Underfed turtles are weak and disease prone, and are unlikely to live for more than 12 – 18 months.
How long can they live?
In the wild turtles can live for more than 50 years, sometimes up to 100. In captivity a lifespan of 20 to 40 years or more is common for a well-cared for turtle.
How do I sex my turtle?
Sexes are difficult to distinguish until the turtle has reached maturity, which may take three to five years. Shortneck turtles can then be sexed by the length of the tail, with sexually mature males having a much longer and thinner tail than females. Long neck turtles can be sexed by carefully examining the underneath of the shell where the tail emerges. Males have a triangular edge to the shell (up), while females have a smoothly curved edge (down).