Turtles are incredibly unique vertebrates, comprised of between 300 and 400 different species (the exact number is contested), and these belong to three groups that are often mistakenly spoken about interchangeably: true turtles, tortoises, and terrapins. However, true turtles live primarily in water and have webbed feet, tortoises are primarily terrestrial and have stubby short legs that have evolved for land, and terrapins live both on land and in water. Turtles and terrapins are the ones that are found in ponds, bogs, lakes, swamps, and the like.
Like most other reptile species, worldwide turtles are facing immense threats from habitat loss, destruction, and overall degradation, as well as poaching and the illegal black market pet trade. In particular, the loss of 87% of the world’s wetlands pose the greatest threat to these creatures, and nearly half of all turtle species are severely threatened with extinction in the near future. Within this, about 60% of freshwater turtle species are endangered or threatened.
This is one of the reasons why incorporating them into your pond (and/or allowing wild ones to call it home) can help with the survival of a variety of species as well as performing various ecological functions, such as helping to control algae and insect populations as many turtles will happily eat both of these.
Considerations Before Buying Pond Turtles
When choosing a turtle species to incorporate into your pond, you should first make sure that it won’t be possible for it to escape your pond area, as it could then become an invasive species and cause a surprising amount of damage to surrounding ecosystems. Some species sold as pets may be native to your area (for example, red-eared sliders are a common pet species but are also native throughout much of the U.S. and Mexico). All of the turtles covered here will need basking sites with plenty of sunlight in the pond, as basking is essential for turtles to maintain a healthy metabolism, healthy skin, and aids in proper digestion.
Furthermore, be aware that the illegal turtle pet trade is a massive issue and one of the culprits causing the demise of countless turtle populations and entire species – make sure to only purchase species that are native to your country/region, and ones that are humanely bred in captivity and not yanked from sensitive wild populations. For example, if you see a black spotted turtle (native to India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) in your local pet shop or being sold by a local individual, you shouldn’t buy it – it’s likely been captured from its native habitat and is being sold illegally, much to the detriment of the struggling species.
Below we will cover some freshwater pond turtle and terrapin species (and where they’re native) that are suitable to incorporate into your pond ecosystem. Asian and African species will not be included, as they are commonly victims of the pet trade. Furthermore, most species here are traditionally found in the U.S., as the U.K. does not have many native turtle species (aside from several sea turtle species), but many of them are now safely bred there in captivity and we will mention whether or not the listed species can be legally purchased in the U.K.
Freshwater Pond Turtles
1) Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)
The painted turtle is native throughout much of the U.S., Canada, and northern Mexico. They can be found for sale in the U.K., though be aware that they must never be released into the wild as they will become an invasive species. A fairly easy species to take care of, and pretty to boot with red-accented shells and unique yellow markings on their bodies (hence their name), painted turtles prefer water temperatures to be as near to 70° F (21° C). They’re a fairly small turtle, usually around 5 to 7 inches in length, making them ideal for any pond size. Painted turtles look very similar to red-eared sliders (below), however, they lack the distinct red ear markings and have an orange or red underbelly, whereas sliders have a yellow underbelly.
While they prefer to spend much of their time in the water, they will need at least one easy entry and exit point as they’ll want to wander out of the pond every now and then. This isn’t an issue if you live within their native range; however, as mentioned above, if not then you’ll need to be sure that they cannot escape into nature.
2) Red-eared Slider/Terrapin (Trachemys scripta elegans)
Red-eared sliders, also known as red-eared terrapins in some areas, spend just about as much time on land as they do in the water, as is typical of terrapins. As such, they’ll need to be able to come and go from the water easily in order to be happy and healthy. It’s so named for the vibrant red splash of color on either side of its head behind each eye. Their maximum average size is about 8 inches in length, though slightly larger or smaller is not uncommon.
Considered one of the world’s top 100 worst invasive species because of their high adaptability and the illegal pet trade exporting them out of the U.S. (where they’re native east of the Mississippi River Basin) to many different countries, you should only get a slider if you live in the eastern U.S. Red-eared sliders can both climb and dig very well, and as such are quite likely to get out of your pond, even if it’s enclosed. They’re very well adapted to both warm and cool temperatures, and really just need a mixture of water, land, and food (they’ll eat just about anything, from insects to fruits to algae and even baby birds), which makes them easy to care for (hence them being a highly sought-after pet). However, this also means that it won’t be an issue for them to make their home in a natural waterway where they will easily out-compete any native turtle species. Be sure to only have this turtle if you live within its native range, or will have it in an enclosed tank or indoor pond rather than an outdoor pond where it could escape.
3) Common Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica)
Map turtles range in size from 6 to 10 inches in length, with the males being typically about half this size. Their shells usually have neat map-like markings covering the surface, and with many different genuses their overall appearance can differ. For example, sawback map turtles have raised saw-like structures on their carapace (the top of their shell), while northern map turtles tend to have flatter shells, and Mississippi map turtles often have more pronounced map markings. They prefer water to be between 72 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and are also quite sensitive – meaning that they need high water quality, else they are prone to bacterial infections and deadly shell rot. In addition, they prefer slightly moving water rather than still water (in the wild, they’re typically found in streams and slow rivers rather than ponds or lakes), so you’ll need to have some form of water disturbance in your pond, such as a pump, waterfall, or fountain.
The young will eat mostly plant matter, like duckweed, so you’ll need to be aware of this if you purchase them as babies and have aquatic plants in your pond. The adults, however, are primarily carnivores and prefer insects, worms, crayfish, though the occasional vegetable (such as romaine lettuce, kale, and endive) can be eaten as a treat. While they are only native in the U.S., they are often sold around the world – this doesn’t seem to be of terrible concern, as they require such excellent water quality and are less likely to become a nuisance species. Regardless, keep your pond somehow enclosed to prevent them from escaping into the wild.
4) Box Turtle (Terrapene)
Box turtles encompass four subspecies and are found, depending on the species, throughout most of the U.S. as well as portions of Mexico and Canada. The Asian box turtle is, as expected, native throughout Asia. They’re typically between 4 to 8 inches in size, with large domed shells that may be plain or have extensive yellow markings, depending on the exact species. Despite their popularity, they are quite difficult to keep as pets since they become stressed very easily, don’t enjoy being handled, need high humidity, are particular about substrate (they like to burrow), and need temperate conditions as they’re more prominent in warmer areas. Additionally, box turtles are terrestrial, meaning they should never be placed in your actual pond! While many can swim, they are not made to stay in water for really any length of time. In terms of diet, this may be the only “easy” aspect of keeping them as a pet, as they have a generalist diet and will eat anything from insects to cacti to berries to gastropods such as snails and slugs.
Box turtles have a low reproduction rate and all species are struggling, so never take them from the wild (as with any of the turtles in this article). In many states, it’s illegal to capture wild box turtles. Rather, only obtain them from an ethical breeder or a store that sells legally-obtained captive bred box turtles. They can be found for sale in parts of Europe, but be aware that there is no known legal trade of box turtles outside of the United States, nor is there any legal trade of Asian box turtles. If you encounter an Asian box turtle (and you’re not in Asia), you should report it. There are some legal captive box turtle breeders in Europe, so do your research before purchasing the turtle to make sure that it was obtained legally by the seller so as to not damage wild box turtle populations or encourage the black market pet trade.
5) European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularis)
The European pond terrapin is found throughout much of Europe, northwest Africa, and western and central Asia. It’s considered non-native in the U.K., but this is only because they were considered extinct in this region due to climatic cooling but have since returned as people keeping them as pets have released them into the wild. Thankfully, because it used to be a natural species here, in this case releasing them wasn’t necessarily a bad thing (though you still shouldn’t do it with any pet turtle, regardless of species!). Most importantly, it is now illegal to have a European pond terrapin as a pet, regardless of where you live, as part of the effort to conserve the species. We included it in this list because it can still often be found for sale and is regarded as a popular pet in many areas, but it needs to be known that this species should not be kept as a pet.
6) Yellow-bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta)
About the same size as red-eared sliders, yellow-bellied sliders are so named for the prominent yellow striping that occurs on the sides of their head, neck, and the bottom of their shell (called the plastron). The water temperature should be kept at 75-80o F (25oC), as these turtles are native to southeastern portions of the United States. As semi-aquatic turtles, they prefer shallow water with plenty of both submerged and emergent vegetation that they can hide in and munch on. They’ll need a variety of basking spots, such as logs and rocks, and have a diet that is composed around 90% of meat – insects, minnows, frogs – but they will occasionally nibble on plants and algae. These are commonly sold (legally) in the U.K., but are technically listed as an invasive species so you must not allow them to leave the confines of your pond or yard; the same thing goes if you don’t live within this turtle’s native range within the U.S.
7) African Sideneck Turtle (Pelomedusidae)
There are several species of African sideneck turtles, all of which are native to eastern and southern Africa. They’re not hugely exploited by humans like many other turtle species, and so the sale of them in the U.S. and the U.K. is currently legal. Though they may appear somewhat plain, these turtles have a great deal of personality. They’re curious, and shouldn’t really be kept with turtles of other species unless they are the same size or larger than the sideneck (which ranges from 8 to 18 inches long), because their curiosity can make them a bit of a bully at times and they may push or bite. They’re known to (rather humorously) “battle” over basking spots, climbing on top of one another and basking on top of whatever individual is in their desired spot – it’s not uncommon to see many sidenecks stacked atop each other! They’re also unique in that they cannot retract their heads completely into their shell like most turtles; instead, they pull it in as far as it’ll go and then turn their neck and head to the side.
You’ll also notice that sideneck turtles have two small barbels on the bottom of their jaw (they look more like bumps than barbels) – these are incredibly sensitive organs that help them to feel around for food as well as sense changes in the water that may mean prey or a predator are nearby. They also have large eyes and a mouth that appears to curl up into a smile, rendering them pretty endearing to look at.
Since they’re from Africa, sidenecks need warm temperatures so you shouldn’t keep them in an outdoor pond unless you live in a warm area in which air temperatures don’t often fall below 60° F (at a minimum) and water temperature is between 70 and 80° F. They don’t hibernate, so if you don’t live in a warm area and experience cool/cold winters, you could alternatively have an indoor pond or tank set up for them to overwinter in. They will occasionally venture into deeper water to browse for food or simply to swim somewhere else, but typically prefer water that is less than a foot deep, with plenty of basking areas and easy access into and out of the pond, so try to keep at least a quarter to a third of your pond on the shallower side if you plan on having a sideneck. They will readily eat insects, worms, some small fish (be aware of this), snails, and greens like spinach and romaine.