Types of Aquatic Turtles

Lauren Jones, VMD
By Lauren Jones, VMD on Aug. 30, 2022

Aquatic turtles can make great pets, but not all types of turtles are ideal for children due to their behavior and ability to spread salmonella. Like all reptile species, they require a certain amount of veterinary care and complex habitat and diet requirements. There are many varieties of aquatic turtles to choose from—it is important to research full grown size, general habitat requirements, and lifespan to find the best fit for your household.

Common Pond Turtle Species

Most pond turtles will typically live 20-30 years in captivity with proper care. However, it is common for them to live over 50 years or more. Some turtles are more aggressive than others, while others may have unique care requirements. They are all susceptible to parasites, vitamin deficiencies, respiratory infections, and shell infections. Stress often exacerbates these conditions, so providing the highest quality of care is important.

The most common pet pond turtle species include the following:

Red-eared sliders may be the most commonly sold aquatic turtle and tend to be more social. They can live up to 30 years and grow 12-14 inches long. This species grows quickly and can outgrow a 20-gallon habitat within 2 years. Based on their enclosure requirements and diet needs, they may be more expensive and difficult to keep than other options.

Painted turtles are known for beautiful markings on their body and shell. They do not enjoy handling and can be shy—therefore interactions should be kept to a minimum. There are four types of painted turtles including the Eastern, the Midland, the Western, and the Southern. This species is social with other turtles, if enough space is given.

Map turtles are known for having a “fin” running down the back of their shell. This species may have a shorter lifespan than other species. Females grow up to 12 inches long, while males may only grow to 5 inches.

Cooter turtles, also known as redbelly turtles, often grow to over 12 inches. They are sensitive to proper water quality, so good filtration is required. Cooter turtles are most commonly found in the southern states. They typically have yellow lines running down their head, neck, and legs.

Stinkpot or musk turtles are small, only 3-5 inches, and may have less complex care than other turtles. They are not social with people and should only be handled when required. They may bite and release a foul, musty odor when they feel scared or stressed, hence their name. This species also prefers more shallow water, as they aren’t adept at swimming.

Mud turtles tend to be shy and nocturnal, spending most of their time at the bottom of the habitat. Like the stinkpot, or musk turtles, they can also release foul odors when stressed. They are not very social with other turtles and may become aggressive when housed in groups.

Snapping turtles are some of the largest freshwater turtles in North America and require large aquariums. They only leave the water to lay eggs and tend to be sedentary. As their name implies, they will bite if threatened and have very strong jaws and beaks capable of serious damage.

Softshell turtles can grow up to 36 inches, with females larger than  males. They are unique looking with flat round shells that are leathery instead of bony. Their soft shell is more prone to damage and injuries. They have a long, narrow noses and are usually a light green, grey, or brown. There are seven subspecies of this turtle. These turtles are very large and also aggressive – biting and scratching when threatened.

Spotted turtles are one of the smallest species of pet turtles, at only 3-6 inches. They have a distinct polka-dot pattern on their shell. This species is known for its longevity – with some recorded living over 100 years old.

Wood turtles are more friendly in the right environment. They are not true aquatic turtles, so their water must not be too deep to prevent drowning. They grow up to 8 inches long, but may not be legal in all states.

Exotic Turtle Species

While all pet turtles require consistent specialized care, some of the less common species have even more complex requirements. In general, only experienced reptile owners should consider some of the more difficult turtles to keep in captivity.

Yellow pond turtles are rare turtles that love to swim and are social with other turtles. They only grow to around 6-7 inches. They have a yellow stripe behind their eye and down the neck. They are threatened to become extinct in the wild.

Asian leaf turtles have rounded shells and grow up to 10 inches. They have a unique serrated or saw-tooth design on the shell margin, which may aid in protection from predators.

Reeve’s turtles are one of the more social turtle species. They may even enjoy physical touch with caretakers over time, although it is still recommended to handle them as little as possible. They have similar requirements as a red eared slider, although at only 6-9 inches they can manage in a smaller tank. Reeve’s turtles are relatively healthy, but usually only live up to 20 years.

African mud turtles frequently grow to around 11 inches long and are best known for their comical expression that looks like they are smiling. They aren’t as flashy looking as some other turtles, and therefore a little less common as pets. However, they tend to be easy keepers with big personalities.

African side necks are a unique turtle species with a long neck. They are small, only 6-9 inches, with slightly different neck anatomy than other turtles. They do require pristine water—with at least weekly changes and a good filtration system. Even though they are small, this species requires at least a 75-gallon tank with platforms and lights. They are best kept indoors.

Snake-necked turtles, or long-neck turtles, are known for their snake-like neck that can fold into their shell. They are rare in captivity and very difficult to keep healthy.

Big-headed turtles have large heads—so big that they cannot fit into their shell. They are poor swimmers, and relatively uncommon in captivity.

Mata mata turtles are beautifully camouflaged to look like leaves and debris at the bottom of pond or river. They can grow quite large at over 2 feet and likely live between 40 and 75 years. They have slightly different habitat requirements than other turtles.


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  13. Wikipedia. Big-Headed Turtle

  14. Wikipedia. Yellow Pond Turtle

  15. Thomson, Scott. Chelonia.org. Eastern Long Neck Turtle - Chelodina longicollis. 2003.

Featured Image: iStock.com/xbrchx


Lauren Jones, VMD


Lauren Jones, VMD


Dr. Lauren Jones graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 2010, after receiving her bachelor's degree...

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