African Side-Neck Turtles

African side-neck turtle
African side-neck turtle in a glass tank. Greg Hume

Aquatic turtles are fun to watch, especially when they are as unique looking as the African Side-Neck turtle. If you haven't already guessed, these turtles are named so because they are unable to tuck their heads entirely inside their shells so they tuck them to the side instead. Their anatomy differs from that of a typical aquatic turtle (i.e. Red Eared Slider) because of their unique cervical spines, extra scutes on their shells, and even their skull characteristics.

Read on to learn more about the care of this interesting water turtle.

  • Name: African Side-Neck turtle, Pelomedusa subrufa, African Side-necked turtle, African Sideneck turtle, African Helmeted turtle
  • Size: Average of 6-9 inches long
  • Lifespan: Over 50 years

Housing African Side-Neck Turtles

African side-necks are aquatic turtles therefore they need a large fish tank that will hold water. Your turtle should be able to swim and dive in their tank so the larger the tank the better. Ideally you should have about a 75 gallon aquarium (or larger) filled 1/2 to 3/4 of the way with water. A floating dock or large rocks that provide dry land and an area for your turtle to climb out of the water to dry off are also needed. Fish gravel or sand works well for the bottom of the tank.

A quality water filter is needed since aquatic turtles defecate in the water and without a filter you'll be doing weekly water changes, a task that will quickly encourage you to buy a filter.

Some people prefer canister filters while others like the smaller submersible filters. For a large tank, such as a 75 gallon, investing in a quality canister filter is typically your best option.

In addition to keeping the water clean you should dechlorinate the water by either letting it sit out for 24 hours before adding it to the tank or by adding dechlorinating solution to it.

A recommended pH of 6.5 (a fairly neutral pH) should be maintained and can be easily checked with water test strips from the pet store.

If you have pets that are able to get into your turtle's enclosure you should have a metal mesh screen lid to keep your turtle safe but still allow heat lights to heat up the enclosure.

Lighting and Heat for African Side-Neck Turtles

Like all other turtles, African side-necks are reptiles, not fish or amphibians. Therefore they require supplemental heat to maintain their body temperatures alongside UVB rays to properly metabolize calcium and Vitamin D3. Both heat and invisible UVB rays can be easily provided in the form of special light bulbs from the pet store. Heat lights vary in wattage and should be chosen to maintain an ambient temperature of about 80 degrees Fahrenheit and a basking temperature of about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature should never drop below 70 degrees, even at night when the basking light gets turned off.

UVB rays are provided in the form of fluorescent light bulbs (both compact and traditional tube lights) that should be kept on a 10 to 12 hour light cycle. The bulbs should also be placed about 10 to 12 inches from where your turtle sits outside of the water.

These special bulbs emit visible white light alongside the invisible UVB rays. These invisible rays will expire after about six months so it is important to replace your UVB bulbs even if the white light remains on.

Feeding African Side-Neck Turtles

Like most aquatic turtles, African side-necks are omnivores. They eat some plant material but they also eat insects, fish, crustaceans, and aquatic turtle pellets while swimming. Meat (such as chicken and beef) should never be fed to your aquatic turtle. Turtle pellets should include the calcium and other vitamins and minerals that your turtle needs. Feeding your turtle as much as he will eat in a 15-30 minute period daily is all he really needs in a day. Remove the uneaten food so that it doesn't spoil or clog the filter.