Dierenverzorger Faunawatch

Musk turtle

This caresheet does not replace careful reading of specialized literature! We recommend comprehensive preparation for keeping turtles.

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Origin: North America
Food: Insects, invertebrates, vegetable
Age: 30 – 60 years old
Solitary/group: solitary
Number of eggs: 1 – 9
Length: 7 – 18 cm
Weight: 0.3 – 0.6 kg
IUCN status: not threatened


Musk turtles are relatively quiet animals that do not glide quickly and elegantly through the water like bog turtles, but rather walk “deliberately” along the bottom of the water, which can also be recognized by their less streamlined body shape. However, they can also swim. They like to stay near structures that provide cover. Only a few leave the water to sunbathe or explore the environment. They do not like to be picked up and show this by opening their mouths threateningly wide. Some animals like to bite, but the majority are less so. Musk turtles can be active both day and night. Young animals have a heavily keeled carapace, but this completely disappears in all species as they age, except in the keeled musk turtle.

In the small group of species of musk turtles, there are very different size-to-sex ratios. While females of bog turtles sometimes grow to twice the size of males, males of musk turtles are larger or smaller than, or the same size as, females, depending on the species:

  • Gilled musk turtle (Sternotherus carinatus): males up to 18 cm, but usually around 12-14 cm, females around 14 cm.
  • Small musk turtle (Sternotherus minor): males up to 12 cm, females up to 15 cm.
  • Common musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus): males around 14 cm, females around 15 cm; there is a brownish and a blackish form of this species.
  • Flat musk turtle (Sternotherus depressus): males usually around 7.5 cm, females up to 11 cm.

Origin / Behavior

There are 4 species of musk turtles. All are native to the southern and southwestern United States. Only the common musk turtle is found in the northeast up to the Great Lakes and the Canadian border. Depending on the species, they live in different aquatic habitats with different depths or flow rates. They all prefer soft, muddy bottoms and, in some places, dense aquatic vegetation in which they can hide well and find a variety of food organisms. They also like to stay in places with branches and roots.

Holding individually or in group

As with many turtle species, males of musk turtles usually do not get along well together, at least in (cramped) aquarium conditions. Females usually get along well, but there are also incompatible specimens among them. In principle, musk turtles could be kept individually, but they have more variation in pairs or triplets. Depending on the male, keeping them permanently in pairs can be very stressful for the female, both in terms of stalking the male and producing eggs. Different sexes should therefore not be kept together permanently.


Keeping with other species

Keeping several species usually works very well, but the other species must be of similar size, temperament and habitat requirements. Bog turtles do not fit in at all, but representatives of the mud turtle genus (Kinosternon) do well. Sometimes males of different species get along, but in this case, especially in the beginning, very close observation is required and the males must be separated again if necessary. Even a biting female musk turtle may get along well with a female mud turtle.


Musk turtles can be kept in either an aquarium or pond. Both methods of housing have advantages and disadvantages.

For two musk turtles, an aquarium should be at least 100 x 50 x 50 cm in size. The water level does not have to be very high (about 30 cm), because these turtles – although they live in water – cannot swim particularly well. A land area that corresponds to the width of the tank and a length of about 30 cm is also an integral part, even if only females are kept, as they (may) also lay unfertilized eggs. If they don’t have a laying site with a sandy substrate, they can get sick in the worst case scenario due to so-called egg-laying distress. It is functional and space-saving if the glass plate for the laying site is stuck in at an angle, so that – seen from the side – it forms a sharp-angled triangle that tapers downward and is about 1 – 2 cm higher than the water level. In this way, the animals have a land area without losing much water surface area.

The water area should be arranged with different roots and/or branches so that the animals can get out of each other’s way and have places to hide. It is essential that there are no narrow spots where animals can get stuck and drown. There should be sufficient structures for young animals to reach the surface of the water. Aquatic plants are recommended because they also provide hiding places and improve water quality. The land area can be filled with sand, as the animals can easily dig in it and sand falling into the water is not disturbing, as the bottom should also be covered with a 2-5 cm thick layer of sand (e.g. play sand from the hardware store, wash beforehand). This looks more natural, has a positive effect on water quality and prevents corrosion of the shell. Whether the aquaterrarium should be covered depends on whether the turtles can climb over a mat filter (see below), pieces of bark or something similar. To assess this, ask yourself if a turtle would be able to climb out if there was another turtle in a corner of the land area whose back it could use as an aid to get out.

Musk turtles can also be kept in a garden pond, but it must be enclosed to prevent the turtles from escaping. The turtles would be happy with this, but one will almost never see them. Depending on the weather, this would only be possible from April/May to November/December. During the other months, the animals would have to be kept indoors.

Two things are essential if you want to keep them in an indoor aquarium: light and filtration.

Because musk turtles are not sun worshippers like tortoises, lighting with full-spectrum neon tubes is sufficient. Conventional LEDs are less suitable because they display only very narrow portions of the light spectrum, which the animals are likely to perceive as (rather) unnatural. If possible, use LEDs designed specifically for reptiles. In addition, a heat lamp should be hung above the land area.

This can be a halogen spotlight or a metal vapor lamp. Unlike many other turtle species, musk turtles do not require UV light for vitamin D3 biosynthesis, therefore a UVB-emitting lamp is not harmful, but also not absolutely necessary. The height of the installation should be chosen so that the temperature at the level of the turtle’s shell is about 30 – 35°C.

Aquatic turtles eat a lot and produce correspondingly large amounts of feces. A powerful filter is therefore a must for good well-being. The filter capacity should be about three times the amount of water. For relatively small aquaterrariums, the so-called “Hamburg mat filters” (detailed information on the Internet) have proven their worth.

They offer the advantage that no hoses run out of the aquarium and therefore cannot flood the living room. Their disadvantage is that they deprive the animals of aquarium volume, i.e. swimming space. Nevertheless, this type of filter, which is installed by do-it-yourselfers using two guide rails, a filter mat and a centrifugal pump or air elevator (no experience for installation required), is very convenient. It is inexpensive, easy to clean and all parts are easy to replace. Small compact indoor filters from the aquarium industry are not powerful enough and therefore cannot be used. For individual aquariums or those with enough space, external aquarium filters can also be used, although they are considerably more expensive to purchase. A filter does not replace water changes, but ensures consistently good water quality.

Heating the water is not necessary if the aquarium is placed in the living room. If the pond is kept at a low stocking density, no technical aids are needed.

Care and maintenance

The care of musk turtles in the aquarium consists of checking daily that the equipment is working, feeding the animals (not daily) and inspecting them.

Depending on the stocking density, feeding and temperature, the water should be partially changed every few weeks. One third of the water remains in the tank and only the rest is changed. On this occasion, some of the detritus (dead organic material) on the substrate (bottom cover) is also removed by suction. Not everything should be “clinically” clean, as the detritus, bacteria, algae, etc. serve the natural balance in the aquarium.

The filter should also not be hot rinsed out or otherwise intensively cleaned, as this would kill all the important microorganisms. A tip for beginners: do not use buckets to drain and feed the water, but use hoses (e.g. garden or pond hoses).


Feeding takes place in the water. The food should be as varied and diverse as possible. Different kinds of pellet food, live or dried mealworms, grasshoppers, wax moth larvae, crickets, frozen (and thawed) or dried freshwater shrimps (gammarus), mussels (“seafood”) or fish (all readily available from the Internet or pet stores) are suitable. In the case of fish, sprat or herring are especially suitable, fed whole or cut up (with head and intestines). The different types of feed should not all be mixed into a “muesli,” as the animals then sometimes get into the habit of eating only the “tasty” ingredients. Only one type of food should be used at each feeding session. In addition, sepia should always be available so that the animals can meet their calcium requirements. You should feed as much as the turtles have eaten in 5 minutes so that no food is left in the water and water quality is not adversely affected. However, food should also be offered that serves as activity and needs to be “broken down” longer. Dog and cat food is bad for turtles in the long run and therefore should not be offered. A special treat for musk turtles are (shell) snails, which are a large part of their diet in their natural habitat. The problem with this, however, is that snails are sometimes carriers of various parasites. Small agate snails are a good alternative.

If you want to give your turtles a “perfect” diet, you can find information on the Internet about “turtle pudding” (which you make yourself) and offer your animals this delicacy once a week (sometimes they need some time to get used to it). The biggest advantage of this food is that a calcium-vitamin preparation can be added to this mixture of various plant and animal food ingredients bound in gelatin, which would always be washed away by the water if sprinkled over the aforementioned food.

Adult musk turtles should be fed about 3 times a week, the smaller ones 5 times a week.

Rest period

Compliance with biological rest periods is a prerequisite for the long-term well-being of these species. If you cannot or will not guarantee this rest period, we do not recommend the purchase of these species.

Musk turtles need a rest period each year to maintain their long-term health and vitality. This is a natural process for them. Moreover, such a rest period is a prerequisite for successful reproduction in the spring. For this purpose, the animals are put in a constantly cool place (e.g. basement, barn, balcony) for 2-3 months. This can be done, for example, in plastic containers or aquariums. It has proven useful to add a handful of beech or oak leaves per animal to the water or to “salt” the water to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. The overwintering temperature of the water should be between 5 and 10°C. A proven procedure is to take the animals outside in late summer/early fall (if kept indoors). There, the length of the day and temperature naturally decrease continuously and the turtles reduce their metabolism and enter a resting phase (which does not necessarily mean immobility). As a rule (depending on the region and year) the night temperature does not drop below 5-10°C until mid-December, or at least not continuously. When it gets colder, the animals acclimate to warmer temperatures within a week and we bring them back inside. This of course applies even if the turtles have been kept in the pond until then. For them, spring then begins in December and they have already completed a resting phase of about 2 1/2 months. You can also overwinter them in the refrigerator (google).

Wintering in a garden pond (must not freeze through!) can work, but our winter is usually too cold and long for North American turtles. The often very variable temperatures during the cold season are also not ideal. Moreover, overwintering in a garden pond is less controllable or impressionable than overwintering in a safe, frost-free, cold-protected location.

Common diseases and parasites

Many different diseases and parasites occur in turtles. It is especially important to observe your turtle frequently so that you will begin to recognize abnormal behavior. If your tortoise shows behavior different from normal, it is always a good idea to contact a reptile veterinarian.

If you adopt a tortoise from us, it has been examined by a veterinarian and treated if necessary. All of our turtles have been quarantined and tested for parasites.

One possible health risk is the transmission of salmonella, which is part of the natural intestinal flora of reptiles. It normally causes only short-term diarrhea in humans. In rare cases, severe symptoms of illness may occur. This mainly affects children under 3 years of age, the elderly or people with immunodeficiency. Therefore, we recommend meticulous hand hygiene by washing your hands or using an appropriate disinfectant.


We strongly advise against breeding these species because the market is oversaturated and it is extremely difficult to place the animals in responsible hands.

This fact sheet has been made available thanks to Auffangstation für Reptilien, München e.V.