There are more than a dozen species in the genus Pelusios, the African hinged terrapins. All are rather drab in color, but are hardy turtles that do well in captivity. Only one, Pelusios subniger, regularly appears in the pet trade and is sometimes bred in captivity. It is a medium sized turtle that can reach 8 inches as an adult. (Another genus is very similar in appearance and habitat requirements, but is distinguished from Pelusios by the absence of a plastral hinge. It is Pelomedusasand has only one species, subrufa. It is commonly called the African helmeted turtle.)
Identification: The East African Black Mud Turtle has a moderately domed, dark colored carapace. It will usually have clearly visible growth annuli. There is no keel and no serrations. The plastron is yellow with dark seams or just a dark border, (but plastral color and markings are somewhat variable.) There is a hinge on the plastron which allows adults to close the front end only. The large head is generally brown colored and may be dappled with gray and black spots. The jaws are tan or yellow. There are two subspecies, P .s. subniger and P. s. parietalis (Seychelles Islands black mud turtle.)
Natural Habitat: The East African sideneck is a tropical mud turtle from Eastern and Southeastern Africa and and Madagascar. Although strong swimmers, they are usually found in shallow waters of soft bottomed marshes, streams and ponds. Mud turtles are hardy. They are designed to withstand poor conditions. If it gets too hot, too cold or too dry they will estivate, burrowed into the mud, until better conditions arrive.
Captive Habitat: A 20 gallon long aquarium is the minimum adaquate size for one juvenile turtle, and adults will appreciate more swimming room. Provide as large a habitat as possible, while maintaining the temperature requirements. (Example of a tropical aquatic habitat. And another view.) The water should be at least as deep as the turtle is wide. To keep this turtle happy and active, the water will need to be heated to 78 - 82 degrees F. by an underwater heater. Water pH should be kept at 6.0 - 6.5 to prevent skin problems. Captive Pelusios are eager baskers, so a dry area with a warm basking light is required . An additional reptile light may be physically and psycologically beneficial. During the day, the basking light will heat the air, so monitor the water and air temperatures to keep them within the comfort range of 80 - 88 degrees F. If no filtration system is used, the water must be syphoned and replaced two or three times each week. A variety of filtration systems is available in pet stores. A powerful canister filter will help maintain good water quality, which will prevent skin and shell infections. (Click to see an example setup.) Feeding the turtle in a separate container will also help keep the vivarium cleaner.
Diet: African mud turtles are primarily carnivorous but will eat aquatic plants too, especially as juveniles. In the wild they eat the water grasses and algae, insects, worms, snails, small fish, amphibians, and crabs. Captives adapt to eating commercial floating turtle sticks (e.g. ReptoMin or Reptile T.E.N.), and these are fine if supplemented with more carnivorous fare, such as crickets, earthworms and snails. It is important to provide plenty of calcium. Keeping a cuttlebone in the habitat will allow the turtle to self-regulate calcium intake. There's more on turtle diets at this link: What Should I Feed My Turtle?
Personality: Pelusios subniger can be very aggressive toward other turtles and should not be housed with other species. They will kill fish, mice, frogs and even birds. You should be wary with your fingers around them! But according to most owners, they acclimate well to captivity, seldom become ill, and are very good pets. It should be possible for dedicated owners to breed them in captivity and eliminate any need to take them from the wilds. Breeding turtles is most likely to be successful in large, outdoor habitats.
Essay on Taxonomy and the Genus Pelusios by David Kirkpatrick, Ph.D
Bartlett, R. D. & Bartlett, Patricia P. 1996. Turtles and Tortoises: A Complete Pet Owner's Manual. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., Hauppauge, NY.
Ernst, C. H. and Barbour, R. W. 1989. Turtles of the World. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
Highfield, A. C. 1996. Practical Encyclopedia of Keeping and Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. Carapace Press, London, England.
Pritchard, P. C. H. 1979. Encyclopedia of Turtles. TFH Publications, Neptune, New Jersey.
© Mary Hopson, Anchorage, AK