Soft Shell Turtles
Authored by Marc Ouellette
So you’re thinking of adding a Chinese soft shell turtle to your collection.
You’ve seen them in stores and at reptile expos, majestically swimming about in their aquariums. They are unique looking and you decided it’s time to bring one home.
Well if there was ever one species of aquatic turtle besides the snapper to do your research on *before* you buy one, it’s the soft shell turtle.
The Chinese soft shell turtle is native to various water bodies in China, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and areas of Japan. Feral populations that have escaped/been introduced have been recorded in areas of Thailand, Hawaii and Florida. Many of these turtles were sold as decorative turtles to live in tropical fish tanks, and many of them have now ended up in rescues after growing up and eating all of the fish.
As a rescuer by trade I’m an advocate of adopting adult animals but in this case I actually recommend starting with a baby. Why? So you can get him or her used to human touch at infancy. These turtles have a nasty bite and with their long necks, can reach around and get you even if you’re holding them at the rear.
They will reach and bite while they’re young; it’s programmed in their DNA to be offensive rather than defensive like most turtles. However if you fight through the first year of life with your turtle and handle them often, they will get used to it and will be less likely to attack when it’s time to maintain their aquarium.
Good filtration: This is important to reduce foul smells and to keep the water clean. I’d suggest buying either a large external filter. Be warned if the filter is not secured well enough these turtles will pull them off their fittings and break them, hide wires well. Soft shell turtles tend to redecorate their homes more than hard shell turtles do.
Warm water: The water temperature should be maintained at between 24 and 25C (75 and 77F). All of your heating supplies can be found in our online affiliate store
Ultraviolet lighting: This species of turtle spends 90% of its time in the water, but they do occasionally come out to bask so it is best to provide a UV5.0 light. This should be positioned no more than a foot away from the turtle when it is basking for optimum exposure. This should be left on for 8 to 12 hours a day.
A good basking spot: Two land areas should be available to your turtle. One area should be for basking and have a heat source above it and the UV light. The other area should be away from the heat source, to allow the turtle to regulate its body temperature. Underwater hides can be built under the land areas. You won’t see them basking much. I can attest to that one. My turtles’ bark wood basking spot goes largely unused. Their skin tends to dry out fairly quickly and it’s in their nature to stay close to the security of the water. A great book on turtles is
A large aquarium: An enclosure measuring at least 150cm by 60cm by 45cm (5ft by 2ft by 18 inches) should be provided to allow adequate swimming space. Three sides of the aquarium should be blacked out in order to prevent the turtle from becoming stressed. Indoor pools are also a good enclosure for this inquisitive species of turtle.
For food, soft shells tend to be more carnivorous in nature and might not always eat store-bought turtle food.
In the wild this species of turtle feeds on a wide variety of fresh fishes, crustaceans, insects and rodents. Therefore in captivity it is essential to feed a varied diet. For example youngsters can be fed waxworms, crickets, pink mice, prawns and pieces of fish. Adults however can eat crabsticks, prawns (With shells on), small rodents, crickets, waxworms, snails, trout, salmon, earthworms, etc. You can enrich the turtles’ environment by hiding the food under stones and logs, to make it search for them. In order to further enrich the environment and add vitamins to the diet I have found that bobbing an apple or hard fruit on the water’s surface can keep them occupied for hours, while providing invaluable exercise for their jaws.
Remember I said before that this is one creature you should research before buying? Here’s why: they get big. Florida soft shells especially. We’re talking 18 inches at adult size before you account for the tail and neck. You need a BIG tank for them at that size to live properly. The rule of thumb I’ve lived by is 10 gallons per inch of turtle shell for 1 turtle. I don’t recommend putting more than one soft shell turtle in a tank. I know of only one instance where two turtles got along together in one aquarium.
Chinese soft shells are better for apartment life due to the fact that they only get to 9-10 inches in length. In fact they are the smallest breed of soft shell, and thus, more manageable in condos and such where the tank can be a 90 gallon.
I don’t recommend putting a soft shell turtle in with hard shell turtles. It’s risky for both species. The soft shell turtle could get stepped on or bit, tearing their delicate skin, and/or the soft shell could attack the others thinking it’s under treat and would need to be separated anyways. It’s just safer for your soft shell to be housed separately.
Make sure the top of the aquarium is as escape proof as possible. It sounds silly, but with their wide hands, thick strong finger nails, and long muscular necks they are quite amazing escape artists. My own turtle can and will climb vertically up the side of my couch to sit with me when I let him out. It freaks the dog out I must admit.
Soft shell turtles can be a great addition to a home where you want something fun to watch other than fish but not something as high maintenance as a hard-shelled turtle. They’re lively and clean and if you give them a proper setup, they’ll last for many years to come. This species of turtle can live for 25 to 30 years.