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by Charles Grima

If you are planning to buy a baby terrapin, do your homeworkfirst, before you buy it. I have always looked upon tortoises as being the CINDERELLAS OF THE PET WORLD, but I think the little terrapins, which we see in the pet shops, are on level terms with them. Baby terrapins are greatly misunderstood, and because of this, their life in this country is not always a happy one. I suspect that the fatality rate is very high.

Pet shop owners, no doubt, do their best for them while in their care, but many people who buy them either give them the wrong care, or quickly tire of them and neglect them. Further, when in captivity, terrapins fall easy prey to disease if neglected.

To care for baby terrapins properly requires patience and the will to give them plenty of attention. If cared for properly, they grow to about seven inches (18 cm.) males and twelve inches (30 cm.) females, in length, and can live for many years.


A terrapin’s shell is flatter than that of a tortoise; this allows it to travel through water with the least resistance. The shell is composed of an outer layer of horn, and an inner layer of bone. The outer layer of horn is the protection, and is composed of a number of tough shields or scutes. The under part of the shell is known as the plastron, and the upper part as the carapace; they are joined at the sides by the bridges. If the terrapin is dropped, or is stepped on, the shell may break. The shell and the skin are very sensitive.

The terrapin’s jaws are composed of bone, covered with hard layer of horn, which comes to a sharp edge. There are no teeth, but the hard horny jaws are very effective for biting and tearing up food.

The fore legs are covered with scales, which gives them protection. This also applies to the heads when it is withdrawn into the shell behind the legs. The hind feet are webbed and are used as paddles to propel the terrapin along in the water. In some species the fore feet are partly webbed.

The terrapin’s tail is hollow (but does contain the tip of the back bone, of course) And contains a sac, the cloaca, which is a communal reception chamber for urine and faeces, as well as a leading to the sex organs. All urine and droppings pass through the hollow tail.


Hearing in the terrapin, as in a tortoise, is, on the whole non-existent, but it has quite good sight, but this naturally deteriorates with age. The sense of smell is keen, and is used for finding food, both on land and in the water.

Terrapins can breath quite freely when on land, or in the water. On land they breath by alternately contracting two muscles in the flanks, and two in the front of the body. By this means the lungs are expanded and contracted, air being sucked and pushed out. Although this method is quite effective, it is primitive to a land mammal. In the water, the terrapin breathes by using the lining of the throat, and by using two sacs in the cloaca, which allow air to pass through them.

While it is easy to sex adult terrapins, it is difficult to sex baby terrapins. In the adults the plastron is either flat or convex in the female, while it is concave in the male. Males have larger nails and are smaller in size.

Terrapins like most creatures, like company, so if it is possible, keep two or more, and they will live a happier life. They live in large numbers in the wild. If a terrapin falls onto its back when on land, it can usually right itself, but if for some reason it cannot, put it on it’s feet immediately; otherwise it will die, as the lungs will be compressed by the intestines and other organs, preventing it from breathing.


Some years ago, practically all terrapins sold in pet shops were of the hardy species, coming mainly from Europe, but, for the past few years, large numbers of half-hardy terrapins from North America have been available.

European species are still imported, but in a small numbers. One is the so-called European Pond Turtle (Emys orbicularis), a species that is found in North West Africa, Southern Europe to West Asia, and in parts of Holland, Germany, Poland and Lithuania.

The carapace of this species is black or brown, with yellow spots or radiating lines on the shields. The plastron is of greyish yellow colour with irregular brown patches. It is hinged between its two sections, and is joined at the side to the carapace by cartilage. The top of the head and neck are brownish black with yellow spots. There are webs on both hind and front feet.

A second species of hardy terrapin some times imported is the Spanish Terrapin, (Mauremys (Cclemmys) caspica leprosa), which is found in North West Africa and the Liberian Peninsula. Young specimens of this species have a yellowish-brown carapace with orange-yellow or red patches in the middle of the shields. The plastron is yellowish, while the skin is olive-green with orange streaks or spots.

By far the most common terrapin imported is the North American half-hardy Red-ear, (Trachemys (Pseudemys) scripta elegans), so called because of the red or dark orange stripe on each side, running from the eye back onto the neck. The head and limbs have a background colour of brown or olive-green with yellow stripes. Its carapace is dark green, while the plastron is yellowish with black markings. It is often referred to as the Elegant Terrapin. This species is found in Northern Illinois and Indiana, and westward through South West Iowa, most of Oklahoma and the Eastern half of Texas. It is also found in most of Missouri, Eastern and Southern Kansas, Western halves of Kentucky and Tennessee to North Alabama and Southern Louisiana. (and in Zabbar)!!!

A second half-hardy subspecies some times imported from North Americas the so-called Yellow-bellied Terrapin (Tramchemys (pseudemys) scripta scripta ). It has a dark brown or black carapace, while the plastron is yellow with some black pigmentation, and there are some black marks on the outer edges. A distinctive feature is the yellow blotch on either side, which curves from behind the eye down to the chin. This subspecies is found in parts of Virginia, North Carolina, most of South Carolina, West Georgia and North Florida.


The feeding and general care of both hardy and half-hardy terrapins is much the same. It must be remembered that these creatures will only feed when in the water. If at any time they find an item of food, which they like, on land, they will drag it into the water to eat it. In the wild they live mainly on live food, and, being flesh eaters (carnivores), they eat fish, tadpoles, worms, insects, etc, in fact, anything in this line, which is small enough to be eaten. They catch their food while swimming about.

However, in captivity, these babies will readily eat small pieces of raw fish, beef, etc, herring and liver being especially good as part of their diet. There are also some very good commercially produced foods on the market. The pieces must be no bigger than a match head, otherwise the babies may choke. When healthy, they will eat heartily, and their diet must be varied in order that they get the essential vitamins, minerals, ect, which they need to keep them healthy. Offer them daily, and a drop of cod liver oil to each feed. They will not eat in the cold, or in the dark.

Although basically carnivores, terrapins should have, and will enjoy, a small amount of green food, such as lettuce or pond weed, about three times a week. When the terrapin is in the water, drop a few small pieces of cuttle-fish in front of it; and it should snatch them and eat them. These will provide calcium, which it needs for growth of the shell and bones. Twice a week will be sufficient.


The living quarters of a terrapin are very important, especially for the babies, as being too small to hibernate, they have to live in them all the year round.

The vivarium should be as large as possible, allowing the terrapins to get all the sun’s rays and natural light. In fact, on hot, sunny days they can be put out of doors in the sun, but they must have protection in case the sun gets too hot. (Some shade), they also need to be protected from cats, which will eat them.

Baby terrapins should be kept in a roomy tank, and these can be bought in pet shops (or from the club). They must be of clear glass to allow natural light to get through to the terrapins. For two baby terrapins, a tank 18 in long by 12 in wide (45cm * 30cm) will be ideal at first, but a larger tank will be necessary as the terrapins get bigger. The water in the tank for babies should be about 4 in (10cm) deep at first, but this can be deeper as the terrapins grow.

One important point which many people do not realise, and unfortunately are not advised about, is that these baby terrapins require heat; a temperature of 75-80° F (23.8-26.6 °c). Ideally, fish tank heaters can be used, and, when providing heat, I always provide two heaters, so that if one fails, the other will provide some heat until the fault is rectified (e.g. 2*50w instead of 1 * 100w). Another essential is an island onto which the terrapins can climb easily, as they do come out of the water to dry themselves. The top of the island must be clear of the water. A flat stone or piece of weathered brick will be ideal, but it should not take up too much space. When dealing with terrapins you should keep in mind that they foul the water after each feed, so this means that to have a clean aquarium a filter should be installed.


When buying a terrapin you will, naturally, want to choose a healthy one. There are a few points, which will help you do this. The eyes should be clean and bright, and should be free of discharge. They should open and close freely. The mouth should also be clean, should open and close freely. Failure to this may mean some injury to the jaw, or diseases of the mouth. It is also an idea to handle a few terrapins for weight, choosing the heaviest.

A healthy creature should be lively, and should move its head and limbs freely, withdrawing them when touched, taking into consideration the surrounding temperature (terrapins become lethargic in cold conditions). The shell should be clean and free of cracks, as should be the skin. On putting pressure to the protruding feet, a healthy terrapin should either push against you or withdraw them quickly.

Any responsible pet shop owner would appreciate your pointing out any creature, which is injured or appears unwell, for, if diseased, it could affect the whole stock.


Terrapins kept in captivity can suffer from various ailments, due, in many cases, to incorrect feeding, or too foul water. I will describe the most important ailments, but I must emphasise the importance of getting veterinary treatment early, as with these creatures, their condition deteriorates quickly when ill or injured.

One common complaint is softening of the shell, due to a lack of calcium. In its early stages this is treatable if caught in time. If a terrapin with soft shell refuses food, take it for veterinary advice immediately, but if it is still feeding, offer it small bits of cuttle-fish and cod liver oil mixed with its food. In these cases the shell feels rubbery.

Blindness and deformities can also occur through lack of sunshine and vitamins (this is why sunshine and vitamins are essential, of course, Vitamins A and D being necessary to correct these conditions). Again veterinary advice is needed. Cod liver oil can be given by mouth if the terrapin is feeding, as this contains the necessary vitamins.

If the water in the tank becomes fouled, the terrapin could develop a mouth infection. This will be recognised by a reluctance to feed, a dirty mouth inside, with the mouth probably being partly open, as well as giving off a nasty smell. Such a terrapin should be isolated and veterinary advice sought, as this condition is sometimes infectious.

Any other problems such as cuts, cracked shells, swellings, signs of worms or blood in the droppings must be dealt with by a veterinary surgeon as quickly as possible.

These little creatures deserve decent care. It is to be hoped that, with much wide publicity and advice on their care, their lives may become much happier than is sometimes the case-free from the ailments, which many of them suffer and die from

Donated by the Malta Aquarist Society Club visit MAS club website

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