1. AFT is Celebrating its 16th Consecutive Year of Helping Freshwater Turtles & Turtle Keepers Online and 22nd Year providing the AFT Care Guide. AFT is a not-for-profit charity administered 100% by volunteer staff only.

Quick Reference Guide: How To Set Up An Aquarium For Turtles and Feeding Guide

Discussion in 'General Turtle Care Discussion' started by Craig, May 14, 2017.

Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.
  1. Craig

    Craig Founding Member/Administrator/Public Officer
    Staff Member Gold Level Supporter

    Aug 8, 2001
    Likes Received:
    When setting up a new aquarium, especially one for a new baby turtle, it's no doubt an exciting adventure and quite often one cannot simply wait to slap it all together, fill it with water and add the new little arrival to its new home, happy days, right? Wrong. Jumping the gun and rushing off half cocked is the WORST thing you can do when setting up a new aquarium, especially for a turtle. There's a thing called "New Tank Syndrome" and it's real. NTS is the cause of death for many new aquarium inhabitants from fish, snails, shrimps and yes unfortunately, baby turtles.

    What causes NTS? The cause is the lack of a biological filter. The biological filter is literally a colony of living bacteria that grows in your filter and aquarium and these bacteria take care of the nitrogen cycle. For more information on the nitrogen cycle and how the process works, see the following link. https://www.amazingamazon.com.au/aquarium-fish-tank-filtration/

    When you feed your turtle and it eats the food, and goes to the toilet, that waste needs to be processed. If it's not, it just sits in the aquarium and fouls the water creating ammonia. Ammonia is highly toxic, even in the lowest measurable levels, especially to aquatic life that literally are living in their own filth. Ammonia burns a turtle's skin causing it to bite itself, mainly its front feet. This is the most common complaint with new turtle keepers with brand new setups that have not been cycled. A turtle, especially a baby turtle will quickly succumb to ammonia and nitrite poisoning. It's eyes will be closed, it'll be relatively inactive, apart from biting frantically at its feet, hauling out of the water (if it's able to) and generally, you'll know something is very wrong.

    Below is a photo of a baby turtle kept in an uncycled aquarium. The presence of ammonia has caused a skin infection and the turtle has been biting its front feet.

    How to properly cycle an aquarium prior to introducing a new baby turtle.
    This sounds all very daunting but it's actually quite simple. You set the aquarium up entirely, fill it with water, add the substrate, plant your plants and have everything hooked up, plugged in running, (lights, filters, heaters, the lot.) Now you get yourself 2 products, Seachem Prime and Seachem Stability and some inexpensive hardy fish like feeder goldfish (great for cycling new tanks because they're messy fish.) and you treat your new aquarium as a fish tank for the next 6-8 weeks. You feed the fish daily and treat them like they cost you $100/each. From day 1 you start adding Seachem Stability as per the instructions on the bottle and you keep adding it every day for at least 7 days. It doesn't hurt if you use it longer, 2-3 weeks even will be fine.

    is key. You need to be patient. After the fish have been in the the aquarium for 10 days, ammonia will start to become apparent. The fish may start to become uncomfortable, signs of this include swimming erratically, increased respiration, gasping at the surface. This is when you need to start dosing the aquarium with Seachem Prime a per the instructions on the bottle. The Prime will instantly detoxify the ammonia and make the water safe for the fish.
    They will survive through the cycling process if you're vigilant and observe their behaviour and take action when it's necessary.
    By this time you need to be doing water tests for ammonia every day or 2. The ammonia reading will spike, anywhere up to 5ppm. This is normal. Keep dosing your tank with Seachem Prime every 48 hours to detoxify the ammonia.

    As the bacteria (contained in the Seachem Stability) rapidly grow, it will consume the ammonia, processing it and converting it into nitrite. Nitrite is even more toxic and dangerous to aquatic life than ammonia. After your ammonia test readings return to 0ppm after about a week after spiking, nitrite readings will begin to spike. Again, continue dosing the tank with Seachem Prime every 48 hours until the second type of bacteria colonises the aquarium and consumes the nitrite and coverts it into the final byproduct of the nitrogen cycle, nitrate.

    This entire process takes 6-8 weeks. Once the ammonia and nitrite readings both remain steady at 0ppm for a week, your aquarium in considered cycled and is now safe for all manner of aquatic life, including a turtle. You will now begin to see rising nitrate levels when you do water tests for nitrate. Nitrates are tolerated by freshwater turtles to quite high levels but it's generally advisable to keep them under 80ppm. We do this by doing weekly 25% water changes. Never do more than a 25% water change at a time. Removing too much water or all of it and cleaning the entire aquarium is the worst thing you can do, it stresses and totally destroys the colony of nitrifying bacteria and you're back to square 1 with an un-cycled tank with ammonia and nitrite all over again.

    It's imperative that you do NOT do ANY water changes during the cycling period.
    Only once the cycle is complete can you start doing weekly 25% water changes.

    Seachem Prime And Seachem Stability are necessary for safely cycling a new aquarium in preparation for a new baby turtle.

    Baby turtles are super sensitive to poor water quality and unstable water chemistry conditions. Some species in particular are more sensitive than others. Macleays for example are one of the most sought after species by newcomers to the hobby because of their small size as adults. Unfortunately they're one of the hardest Australian species to keep in captivity and NOT recommended for beginners.

    Always remove the goldfish before putting the turtle in the tank as turtles cannot be kept with goldfish, (including all forms - standard and fancy.)
    Along with goldfish and carps, the entire Cyprinidae Family should be avoided as feeder fish for turtles. This family includes the minnows (White cloud Mountain minnows) and Bitterlings are extremely high in thiaminase enzymes. When ingested, thiaminase will break down thiamine, (vitamin B1) and render it completely useless. This will cause your turtle to suffer from a deficiency and over time, cause it to have drastic problems with its nervous system. It will ultimately lead to its death.

    Below is an image depicting where thiaminase cleaves thiamine (Vitamin B1) and renders it useless.
    National Geographic did a documentary on American Alligators in Florida that were being affected by fish containing thiaminase enzymes. It's well worth watching if you believe it's OK to be feeding your turtles goldfish!

    Safe feeder fish for turtles include : Gambusia, commercially bred feeder fish such as firetail gudgeons, domestic guppies, platy, mollies, swordtails and neon tetras.
    In the warmer months, from November to February (in Australia) it is relatively easy and cost effective to trap your own feeder fish from a local creek, dam or stream with a simple collapsible box style trap from K-Mart or Big W.
    *AFT recommends only trapping introduced pest species like Gambusia holbrooki and using them as feeders whilst releasing all Australian Natives that are under pressure like Pacific Blue-eyes.

    Feeding your turtle/s.
    You have one simple goal when feeding your turtle, learn what your particular species eats in the wild and strive to simulate this in captivity. For all reptiles, especially turtles, a diet with the correct calcium to phosphorous ratio is important to maintain bone integrity. If the turtle does not receive enough calcium in the diet to maintain the correct level in the blood, the needed calcium is taken from the bones. The bones are softened and the muscles weaken. This syndrome is termed Metabolic Bone Disease or MBD.
    For turtles, the importance of maintaining good bone/shell strength is obvious. All you have to do is provide the foods that enable the turtle to maintain this balance and it's not complicated. Avoid exclusively feeding foods that are high in phosphorous and low in calcium like mealworms, crickets and peas.

    ALL fruits and vegetables intended for human consumption, especially peas and spinach should NEVER EVER be fed to aquatic turtles. With its oxalic acid content, Spinach presents a special problem. This combines with calcium to form an insoluble salt, calcium oxalate, which builds up in the kidneys. All meats like mince, steak, chicken, lean silverside and roo meat AND ALL FROZEN TURTLE DINNERS containing ANY of the above mentioned items should also be avoided. These contain way too much complex protein for turtles that haven't evolved to eat such items and the resulting effects of such a diet are severe nutritional deficiencies, deformity ( such as pyramiding, tenting and scalloping) and premature death.

    Below is an example of a diet-related deformed turtle.

    Short-necked turtles are opportunistic omnivores and their diet should be as NATURAL as possible with up to 75% aquatic plant material, including native duckweed, Pacific or ferny Azolla, thin Vallisneria and Elodea.

    Macleay River turtle eating Duckweed, a favourite food of all juvenile short-necked turtles.

    ***Remember - Turtles should only be fed by you ONCE PER DAY an amount the size of their heads.*** Short-necks should always have access to aquatic plants as it makes up the bulk of their natural diet.

    Other natural protein containing food items they should be getting offered include :

    Silkworms and the moths
    Freshwater ghost/glass shrimps/prawns
    Red Cherry shrimp
    Freshwater yabbies (claws removed)

    Wood roaches AKA speckled feeder roaches
    Whole live feeder fish, (guppies, platy, mollies, Neon tetras)
    If your turtle is a short-necked species, you can also supplement their diet once/week with a quality commercial food like Hikari Cichlid Gold or Exo-Terra Aquatic Turtle pellets. These are the 2 recommended by AFT as they have added D3 and the correct calcium to phosphorous ratio of 2:1.

    *Long-necked turtle species are strictly carnivorous/insectivorous and won't accept commercial pellet food or plant material as a part of their diet.*
    They should be offered a natural, varied diet of live foods. Both Long and Short-necked turtles should NOT be fed Mealworms. Mealworms, apart from being high in phosphorous, have a hard chitinous exoskeleton that turtles have a real problem digesting. It's been proven that mealworms can cause gut impactions in both reptiles and amphibians. Crickets can also cause problems, especially for Long-necked species that have softer mouths. Crickets can cause stomatitis, (mouth rot) in Eastern Long-Necks when the spiky hind legs cut the mouth and bacteria present in the aquarium water causes infection. In extreme cases, left untreated, stomatitis has caused turtles to literally starve to death as they cannot effectively hunt and eat.

    Crickets and mealworms as previously mentioned are also high in phosphorous and low in calcium (a turtle's overall diet should have a calcium to phosphorous ratio of at least 2:1 or higher calcium). Crickets are the primary cause of gaseous buildups in turtles. Wood roaches AKA Speckled feeder roaches are a much safer and more nutritional feeder insect option.

    When it comes to keeping turtles in indoor aquariums, using aquarium gravel as a substrate is a big no no for. They require a substrate of natural river sand mixed with calgrit to a depth of no more than 3cm. Turtles in the wild, especially baby turtles don't live in rocky, gravel sections of rivers. They live in mud and silty sections that provide cover. Turtles instinctively dig into sand and mud to avoid predation or to rest/sleep. They cannot do this in gravel. Also, a turtle's shell is covered in scutes made from keratin, (the same stuff as our fingernails.) Keratin is easily damaged by gravel and rocks which are obviously harder. If the scutes are compromised, anaerobic bacteria then has easy access to your turtle's shell and before you know it, your turtle has shell pitting and then shell rot. Below is a photo of a turtle that's been kept on gravel it's whole life. Notice the pitting in the plastron (lower half of the shell) this is caused by anaerobic bacteria attacking the turtle. Using sand and calgrit prevents this from happening.

    Here's the plastron of an Eastern Long-Necked turtle - Chelodina longicollis kept in an aquarium with a substrate of river sand and calgrit. The shell is smooth, free of pitting and damage.
    The river sand won't damage their shells like gravel, stones and rocks do. The sand and calgrit can be safely ingested and passed whereas gravel will cause intestinal blockages and most importantly, the sand and calgrit will not trap detritus and harbour anaerobic bacteria. It will also buffer your pH, KH and GH within the recommended levels whereas the gravel will not.
    A captive turtle can safely eat calgrit which will be digested and is a great additional source of calcium.

    A gravel/rock/pebble substrate will also cause pressure sores (like brown blisters) on your turtle's legs and feet. Imagine yourself trying to get comfortable all day on a couch or bed made from cement. Sand and calgrit is a lot softer and more comfortable and natural for turtles, like couch cushions and a mattress is for us. It also allows them to safely exhibit normal turtle behaviour like digging and fossicking for food without injuring themselves.

    Here's an X-ray of a turtle kept on aquarium gravel. It's entire digestive tract is full of gravel. Captive turtles kept on gravel will accidentally ingest it when hunting live prey items, they can also intentionally ingest it purely out of boredom and displacement behaviour from being kept in unnatural conditions. The turtle requires an operation to have it surgically removed or it will die.
    Here's an x-ray image of a turtle kept on a substrate of river sand and calgrit.

    Using calgrit is recommended as it will buffer your pH (potential hydrogen), KH (Carbonate Hardness) and GH (General Hardness).
    The recommended readings set out by AFT are as follows :
    pH - 7.4 to 7.8
    KH - no less than 80ppm.
    GH - 180ppm - 200ppm.

    Below is a chart depicting the Mineral composition of calgrit. AFT pioneered the use of calgrit with freshwater turtles. We have proven that it prevents several prevalent captive turtle conditions including soft shell, calcium deficiency syndrome, skin infections, shell rot and metabolic bone disease.
    Calgrit can be sourced online from our major sponsor Amazing Amazon.
    Or here. https://www.petandgarden.com.au/pou...algrit-poultry-supplement-20-kg-cal-grit.html

    By using the AFT Aquarium Volume Calculator here... https://www.australianfreshwaterturtles.com.au/custom/calculator/ You will know exactly how much sand, calgrit and salt you need for your aquarium.

    *** IMPORTANT. You MUST use natural river sand, NOT beach sand, builders sand, play-pit sand, coral sand, etc. The reason for this is because the primary component of typical beach sand, builders sand, play pit sand, coral sand etc is quartz, or silica (SiO²). Quartz is a hard mineral which, not having any cleavage planes - (The tendency of a mineral to break along weak planes), does not fracture easily, leaving it with sharp and jagged edges. When ingested, these types of sand act like sandpaper on a turtle's digestive tract and when passed, damage the fine bursae, (fine gill like filaments) in the turtle's cloaca which they use to extract oxygen from the water. It will also completely wear the sensory barbels off your turtle's chins. Natural river sand when viewed in comparison under a microscope is smooth and rounded and nowhere near as jagged and abrasive.
    Here's an image of beach sand under a microscope magnified 200 times. You can clearly see the jagged composition of it and this is why ONLY natural river sand should be used with freshwater turtles.

    Natural river sand is a much safer alternative.

    Below is an image of the fine gill like bursae in a turtle's cloaca. These are easily damaged when using the wrong substrates.

    It's highly recommended to use sea salt in your turtle tank at the rate of 4g-5g/litre (0.4% - 0.5% salinity.) We use salt at the rate of 4-5g/litre because it drastically reduces the chances of turtles getting skin infections as it inhibits and destroys infectious bacteria which are always present in a closed captive environment. It also raises conductivity and helps to regulate osmosis promoting overall general health and well-being and preventing premature organ failure. Always use an accurate set of digital scales to weigh the salt. As an example, if your tank currently holds 100 litres of water, you should be using anywhere between 400g and 500g of salt in the tank to achieve the recommended salinity.

    Salt does NOT evaporate. When topping up your aquarium due to evaporation, you do not need to add more salt. Only after doing a partial water change should you add the necessary salt to replace what you removed. Always use a digital salinity meter to monitor the aquarium's salt level.
    These are the ones we use here at AFT. https://www.amazingamazon.com.au/digital-salinity-meter.html
    You can also get them on eBay.

    Recommended turtle tank salinity.
    The salt is inexpensive to buy, you can get a 25KG bag from Bunnings for a bit over $7.

    Here's My Macleay River turtle tank, home to 4 Macleays.


    As for turtle tank lighting, a few types are needed, heat, UVB and plant specific full spectrum (if keeping aquatic plants.) The UVB needs to be rated 10.0 (10%) for turtles and needs to be on for 10-12 hours a day. The UVB should be provided via FULL LENGTH fluoros in reflectors laying across the entire length of your aquarium. These are available in T8 or T5. T8's last about 6 months before needing to be replaced and must be within 15cm of the water's surface. T5's last 12 months and must be no closer than 30cm to the water's surface.

    Here's some of the reputable brands we at AFT recommend you use. They must be rated UVB 10.0 (10% UVB) for turtles. 2.0 and 5.0 are simply insufficient.

    These are the fluoros that can be used alongside the UVB tubes for growing aquatic plants. They work really well and aquatic plants do great with these inexpensive tubes.


    Turtles also require heat lamps above a dry-docking/basking area so they can haul out to bask, shed old dead skin and old scutes and to regulate their body temperature. As ectotherms, turtles require an external heat source to regulate their metabolism to control all their bodily functions including the digestion of food. To deny a turtle a hot basking spot is to deny it one of its most important basic necessities for life. It's really cruel to not provide an aquatic turtle with a dry, hot basking area.
    A basking area should be heated by lamps for about 2 hours every morning and another 1-2 hours every late afternoon as this is when turtles will normally bask. You should aim for a basking temperature of 30-34 degrees C.

    Get it right and your turtles will haul out to bask freely on a daily basis. The docking area should be in a quiet corner of the tank furthest from human traffic. Turtles are naturally shy when hauling out to bask, it's normal for them to not bask while they're being watched. 260+ million years of evolution has programmed them to be shy as this is when they're most exposed and vulnerable. Understanding this will help you create a suitable basking position that will be utilised by your turtle/s.

    When it comes to filtration, turtles are extremely messy creatures and they produce substantially more waste than fish. Turtles require a minimum turnover rate of 7X their aquarium's entire volume every hour to maintain water quality. So, as an example, if your aquarium holds 200 litres of water, it should be filtered with an external canister filter that has a turnover rate of at least 1400 litres/hour. More is better.

    Do turtles need natural sunlight? The answer is YES. No matter how many UVB lamps you have and how good the brand is, there is NO substitute for the real thing. It's been said that 10 minutes in natural sunlight is equivalent to a week's worth of artificial UVB from a light. Therefore it's recommended that you take your turtles outside for natural sunlight when the weather permits at least 3-5 times/week for 15-20 minutes of morning or afternoon sun. Never take turtles outside in the hottest part of the day, they can quickly overheat, dehydrate and die. Always observe them closely as they can also fall prey to predatory birds and roaming cats and dogs.
    Always provide a shaded area when your turtles are outside in the sun.

    Regarding turtle tank water quality there's a few other things you could use to improve it. 2 particular products we've found at AFT that are far superior to anything else are Seachem Purigen and Splosht. Purigen is a chemical filtration media that polishes aquarium water to unparalleled clarity by removing fine light blocking impurities. It also helps to remove organic matter that causes ammonia and nitrite spikes.

    Splosht is a special blend of natural beneficial bacteria that will grow in your aquarium to help control ammonia, nitrite, nitrates and phosphates. Purigen and Splosht are aquatic safe and friendly.
    For more information, visit http://www.splosht.com.au/ If you scroll about half way down the page, on the right hand side you'll see a customer testimonial I wrote on behalf of AFT for Splosht.

    BY Kev McKay
    • Like Like x 4
    • Agree Agree x 1
    • Informative Informative x 1
Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.