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The vivarium
  • Terrapins need a land area in their glass tank on which to rest, bask, and walk around and an area of fresh water in which to feed and swim. Provide a ramp for easy access between the areas. A ratio of 70 percent land to 30 percent water is adequate. Allow 1 square metre per terrapin. A good-sized glass tank is 150 centimetres × 60 centimetres × 60 centimetres high.
  • Do not use a glass or watertight cover for the tank. A metal cover is preferable.
  • Terrapins need a full-spectrum light to mimic the radiant energy of the sun, which is necessary for them to manufacture vitamin D, which is important for good bone and shell health. The light is usually contained within the cover. It should be situated over the land area on a timer switch to regulate the night/day cycle.
  • Use a tank thermometer to measure the temperature. For their body systems to function, terrapins need an ambient temperature range of 20–30°C for adult terrapins and slightly higher (25–30°C) for juveniles. A water heater will maintain the water temperature at 25°C, but a tank in direct sunlight, especially during the summer and by a window, may overheat.
  • A water filtration system removes small particles of debris and clears the water, but even with filtration, tank water needs changing regularly. Large external tank filters are best. A hose sucks up water from the bottom of the tank, passes it through a filter that removes the waste matter and dissolved toxins from the water, and pumps the cleaned water back into the tank.
  • Gravel rocks are easy to clean. Too many large rocks may impede under-gravel filtration systems. The amount of gravel needed depends on the type of filtration system.
Maintaining the vivarium
  • Uneaten food and faecal material left in the water during warm conditions provide the ideal media for pathological (disease-causing) bacteria to grow. To manage terrapins successfully, keep the water clean.
  • If there is no filtering system, remove faecal material every day and remove any uneaten food after twenty minutes. Clean the tank and the rocks and replace the water twice a week.
  • With a filtering system, replace half of the water each week. If gravel is used in the tank, rake it through so that the debris is removed with the dirty water. Remember to replace it with clean, warm water.
  • Clean and/or replace the filter medium regularly, usually every two to four weeks. Read the filter instructions carefully. If you use under-gravel filtration, do not soak the gravel in bleach solution during cleaning because this kills useful bacteria. Instead, wash it gently with unchlorinated water until the water runs clear.
  • Clean the tank and its contents about every two weeks, depending on the type of filter used. Use buckets, towels, sponges, salt, and bleach. To do this:
    • place the terrapins in one bucket, the tank materials and equipment in another, and reusable gravel in a third bucket
    • soak the tank equipment and gravel in a weak bleach solution of 10–20 millilitres of bleach per litre of water for fifteen minutes
    • wipe the equipment over and rinse it several times in clean water
    • refill about a quarter of the tank with clean water and use salt to remove deposits from the glass
    • rinse the tank thoroughly with clean water and dry it
    • refill the tank with warm water at 25°C and replace the remaining tank materials and equipment before putting the terrapins back. Rain or filtered water is the ideal, but if only tap water is available, ensure that it stands for twenty-four hours beforehand to dissipate the chlorine.
  • Wash your hands after cleaning the tank.

Vivarium diagram

  • ambient temperature range 20–30°C
  • varied diet
  • 0.5–1 cm-sized cubes of food
  • preferably feed in second tank
  • replace half water twice weekly; allow chlorine to evaporate
  • clean every two weeks.


Vivarium diagram.

Vivarium for terrapins: main features


Vivarium diagram explanation

A glass tank measuring at least 150 cm x 60cm x 60cm is shown.

The a cover is not glass or watertight and has a full spectrum light and timer.

There is a tank air thermometer and a water heater. A water pump is attached to the tank and needs to be cleaned or replaced regularly.

A water thermometer is also attached to the inside of the glass.

On the floor of the tank there is washed gravel, small rocks, and rocks that protrude from the water, and a ramp for access to water or land. Ideally there is a separate feeding tank.

Diet should be varied and provided in 0.5- to 1-cm sized cubes.

Half the water should be replaced twice weekly and the chlorine allowed to evaporate after refilling.

The tank needs cleaning every two weeks.

Ambient temperature range for terrapins 20–30°C.

How to care for terrapins

  • Terrapins are omnivores and are messy feeders. An adult terrapin's diet may include fresh, small, whole fish, whitebait, tadpoles, freshwater shrimp, freshwater snails, tinned dog/cat food, dry cat food (soaked in water for five minutes), trout pellets, earthworms, cubes of cheese and hard-boiled egg, watercress, duckweed, silverbeet, or spinach. Commercially prepared foods are also available. Terrapins may swallow small-sized gravel if their diet is inadequate.
  • Adults may be fed small daily meals or a larger meal every two to three days. Juveniles should be fed daily, separately from the adults.
  • Terrapins feed in the water by sight. Ideally, feed them in a second tank of deep, warm water. This helps to keep the main tank clean and provides deep-water swimming exercise. You could use a bucket of warm water instead. If it is not practical to provide a second tank, remove all uneaten food after twenty minutes.
  • Food should ideally be in cubes of 0.5 to 1 centimetre so that the terrapins can grab and swallow it. They will grip and shake larger bits of meat to break off smaller pieces.
  • Place vitamin and mineral supplement powders inside cubes of food so that these supplements are not lost into the water.
  • Do not put your fingers into the feeding tank. Use iceblock sticks to introduce the food.
  • Terrapins are strong and can be aggressive. They can and do bite. A useful way to hold them is to hold their carapace (shell) between your thumb and forefinger just in front of their hind legs. After they have been held on their backs for fifteen to twenty seconds, they will remain quiet for a short period of time when righted.
  • Limit the time that terrapins are handled, and always wash your hands thoroughly afterwards because terrapins can carry salmonella. Symptoms of salmonellosis infection usually include vomiting and diarrhoea.
  • Maintaining high standards of hygiene and nutritional care is required for terrapins' good health. Nutritional diseases of the skin, eye, shell, and bone caused by inadequate amounts of vitamins A, B, and D and incorrect levels of calcium and phosphorus are the most common problems.
  • Inadequate hygiene may also cause terrapins to contract bacterial and fungal illnesses.
  • Ill terrapins that need nursing and medication should be kept in ambient temperatures of 25–30°C. This keeps their body metabolism up and ensures that medications have an opportunity to work.
  • Prevention is the best cure. During their daily health check, look for normal activity and appetite. Check that the terrapin's eyes and nose are clear of any discharges and that its faeces are normal. Its shell should be firm and solid to touch and its legs strong. At any sign of illness, or if you have questions, consult a veterinarian.

Interesting facts about terrapins

  • The terrapins kept in New Zealand are red-eared terrapins (Pseudemys scripta elegans). Terrapins are native to the warm tropical areas of South-east Asia and Central America.
  • The names terrapin, turtle, and tortoise can cause confusion. Turtles are sea chelonians, tortoises are land chelonians, and terrapins are freshwater chelonians that spend some time on land. All chelonians have hard shells to provide protection, and these make up 30 percent of their body weight. Unlike claws, nails, and beaks, a terrapin's shell is living, and so it should never be cut or trimmed because this would cause the animal extreme pain.
  • The horny (cartilaginous) beak of a terrapin grows continuously.
  • Terrapins are ectothermic, and so they depend on the environment to provide their body warmth. In their natural environment, they would bask in the sun to gain heat and shelter in shade to promote heat loss.
  • Terrapins are aggressive and will bite. They may also 'bark' when angry.
  • Terrapins in New Zealand are usually infected with salmonella bacteria. This is a zoonotic disease, which means that contact with infected animals can infect human beings.
  • Male red-eared terrapins have very long claws on their forefeet and longer, thicker tails than the females. It is difficult to tell the gender of a terrapin until it is eighteen to twenty-four months old. Females may breed at three to four years of age, but this timing seems to be related more to size than to age.
  • Females may produce fertile eggs several years after mating. A special sandpit is needed for a nest. The females will dig a nest about 10–15 centimetres deep into which they first urinate and then lay their eggs. They then carefully cover their eggs. The eggs need incubation temperatures of 29–32°C for sixty days before hatching.
  • Terrapins may live for up to thirty years.


The text and illustrations for this online edition of Caring for animals: A Guide for teachers, early childhood educators, and students (published on Te Kete Ipurangi for the New Zealand Ministry of Education in 2005) is copyright © Crown 2005. All rights reserved.

Content has been adapted for the web from the printed version, originally published in 1999 by Learning Media Limited for the Ministry of Education. Although no longer available this publication may still be available in some schools.