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Turtle Tanks

Last Updated: 1/30/11

Tator's 20 gallon tank on 12/9/06. Tator is on the far left. Go to Tator's page to see more photos of his various setups.

Aquariums for Aquatic Turtles:

Turtle Tank Article by Jon Andrews (on another page).

Visit my main turtle page for links and lots more information on turtles!

Three Indoor Turtle Pond Setups

Basic Setups

This section was copied from my turtle care section for now:

A simple setup for a small to medium sized aquatic turtle or two would include the following components: A glass aquarium of minimum 20 gallons with a 40 gallon breeder or larger tank being ideal; a screen lid; an incandescent lamp for heat and light on top of the screen and over the land area; a full spectrum fluorescent light to provide UVB and other natural components of light (sunlight would be an alternate choice if the tank were placed near a window but would not overheat); water filled to cover the turtle so that the turtle can sit in it with its head sticking out while resting (a deeper area is okay but there should be an area where the turtle can rest in shallow water); a land area created with slate, rocks, etc. that does not have any sharp edges; an easy way for the turtle to get from the water to the land; a heater in the water if it is below the turtle's preferred range; a filter for the water (a Duetto or other submerged filter works well); a food dish; and other odds and ends. Total costs in the USA will run about $100 to $300 for this setup. The water should be kept clean by changing it as often as needed (this is the biggest pain with keeping aquatic reptiles unless you can have a drain built in; I hate changing my lizard's 10 gallon "pond"). For more detailed information, visit some of the links listed on my turtle links page.

For a detailed setup for baby and small turtles, see my hatchling turtle page.

For a list of supplies and where to buy them for turtle tanks, see my turtle supply list page.

Water Depth:

To start, aquatic turtles should have water about as deep as they are long. Using various land areas, rocks, etc., there can be a variety of depths which is better. A slightly deeper area for swimming is good. Turtles like to sit in the water with their heads out without having to work so that means a shallow area of only a few inches (depends on the size of the turtle). This can be accomplished with an underwater shelf.

Land Areas

Aquatic turtles need an area where they can completely haul out of the water if they wish. This is often called the basking area as it is often underneath the incandescent heat lamps. For small turtles, it is easy to create a small basking area using rocks or slate. Be sure the turtle can crawl onto the rock, and there are no sharp edges to cut the turtle. Drs. Foster & Smith sells new turtle ramps that allow turtles to bask. They sell larger sizes for adult turtles too. As of 2/3/06, I have seen four different models/types of turtle basking islands. Most have suction cups to stick to the glass or plastic of the tank.

You can make a land area from a plastic storage box turned over (cut most of the sides out) or get a piece of plastic or Plexiglass and glue on (with silicon or any fish-safe sealant/glue) legs made of PVC pipes to make a land platform anywhere in the tank and still let the turtle use the water area under the platform for swimming. Drill a small hole in the top of each PVC leg so that the whole thing will sink and not float. Use pieces of plastic (like lids from storage boxes), Plexiglass, kitchen PVC-coated racks (I use one made for under counters that I bent to make a ladder for my lizard to get out of her water container), lighting grates, etc. to make ramps and land areas. These are light, easy to clean, easy to remove, and provide the turtle with the most free room in the tank. They also sell suction cup islands for turtles but most of those things just fall off after a while. PVC pipe legs on platforms have worked for a number of people who have contacted me. They can take a lot of weight so you can even put rocks and heavy turtles on the "island." Plus, they let the area under the platform be used as swimming space. If the land is clear, like Plexiglass, then there is even light under there. Be sure there is an air gap between the land and water under it so the turtles can breathe under the land area while swimming. Small land areas that touch the water are probably okay but larger areas that allow swimming under them should have air pockets.

Places to Hide

If the turtle's tank has a lot of rocks and shelves, there may be enough places to hide. Turtles are not as skittish as some other animals in needing places to hide but it varies depending on the species, size, age, etc. In addition to rocks and ledges, the addition of real (may get eaten) or fake plants may work for some situations. If the turtle starts to eat fake plants, they have to be removed (both my baby snapper and sailfin lizard had fake plants once but started to eat them). For land areas, a small box or log can be used for a hiding place.


Turtles from temperate regions, such as most of those listed on my turtle species page do best if kept 65-75 degrees F. They will also do well as warm as 80 degrees F. These same turtles should be able to survive cooler temperatures, even so low as just above freezing in the bottom of a pond over winter if they were prepared for it. For most situations with temperate turtles, room temperature is fine. Despite being able to tolerate cooler temperatures, all turtles need a heat lamp somewhere in their setup so they can warm themselves in order to digest food.

Tropical turtles require much more warmth and should have heaters in their tanks if the room is below 80 degrees F. Most do well at 80-85 degrees F but it depends on the species.


All reptiles need two kinds of light sources. The first is an incandescent lamp for basking that produces heat. Being cold-blooded, all reptiles need to warm themselves up via the sun or incandescent lamps (or ceramic heat emitters). I used a 100 W daylight during the day and a 75 W black night light during the night. The other light required is fluorescent full spectrum lighting with UV rays OR natural sunlight. The UVB rays are especially needed to allow the turtle to process enough Vitamin D. Vitamin deficiencies (A and D mostly) are manifested as swollen, oozing eyes and malformed shells for the most part. If those things show up, check the lighting situation. Incandescent fixtures should be ceramic where the bulb goes due to the high heat. I ran turtle lighting from about 6:30 am to 6:30 pm daily when I had turtles so it is about half daytime, half night time.

If you do not have access, resources, or money for lighting for a turtle, then put the cage/tank where it will receive natural sunlight for part of the day (be sure it does not overheat either though).

Filtration, Cleaning, and Water Changes

Contrary to some people's beliefs, water turtles are affected by the same chemicals in water as fish. These include ammonia, nitrite, nitrate (high levels), low oxygen, etc. Thus, their tanks should have a good filtration system. This is especially true since, just like fish, aquatic turtles do most of their eating and defecation in the water. An especially good filter is needed. Water changes should be done every week, 50-100% may be needed. It depends on the size of the turtle(s), tank, and whether or not the turtles are fed in the main tank or elsewhere. Also, if there are other animals like fish in the tank, huge water changes cannot be done. Dechlorinator should be added to water for those with city water.

For temporary turtle containers, I have used the Duetto 100 filter. It can lay on its side so it works in water as shallow as a few inches. There are a few other submersible small filters that may work as well.

How often the water is changed depends on how big the tank is, how much water is in it, how big the turtle is, how warm it is, how much food is fed, and more. I changed Snappy's (a baby snapping turtle) water three times a week with a 100% water change. After washing everything, I put in new water, some aquarium salt (a tablespoon per 5 gallons is good) and some turtle water conditioner (contains some good bacteria to help digest turtle poo and also dechlorinates city water (I have well water though). If you have city water, add dechlorinator, as just like fish, turtles absorb toxins from the water into their bodies. I cleaned the filter with the water changes but only changed the insides in it every 3 weeks.

Salt helps to suppress fungal infections which are very common. It also deters bacteria. A tablespoon per 2-5 gallons is good for turtles.

Turtle Tank Photos

Tony sent me a link to his page with photos of the turtle tank he set up for his red-eared slider Happy.
Happy's Turtle Page
I asked how the tank was set up and got this response on 8/31/08:

"In regards to your questions about the plexiglass idea, I got the idea (as you did), from one that I saw I could order from a company. The problem is, however, I wanted something bigger, and something with a curved front end to fit my Euro tank design, and something more stable than using just suction cups... so I came up with my design. In answer to your questions, I have access to a machine shop, so I sorta just started playing around with what I had in stock. I had an old piece of plexiglass, and some aluminum stock, and I cut the top piece to just fit the tank contour. I tapped holes in the aluminum legs, and pre-set my holes in the plexiglass so that the screws that hold the legs on were level with the plexiglass. I also added suction cups on the bottom on the front legs (which are buried in the gravel), to keep it from flipping forward when the turtle sits on the ramp. I bent a small piece of flat aluminum stock to attach the ramp on separately with screws, and I bought the traction tape at a local hardware store (it's the same stuff you line shower floors with)."


Haywood sent some photos on 2/17/07 of his 75 gallon tank with two musk turtles (stinkpots, a 4" 13-year- old female and a 1.5" one-year-old juvenile) and a 1.5" male one-year-old Eastern mud turtle. For filtration, the tank has a Fluval 403 and a Fluval 304. The tank also has a spotted catfish, a clown loach, two plecos, rosy red minnows, and some goldfish. "The goldfish and minnows tend to disappear over time."
75 gallon turtle tank - note the turtle at the bottom right
75 gallon turtle tank
75 gallon turtle tank
Waterfall in the tank
Left side of the tank - note the turtle in the bottom middle of the photo
Musk turtle hiding
Musk turtle coming to see you - note the catfish on the right
Adult musk turtle waving
Musk turtle and his reflection
Musk turtle
Adult musk turtle - note the algae on her shell

As of 12/14/10, I have gotten at least a half dozen people asking where they can get the backdrop used in the photos above. Mike (Haywood) replied with this on 4/6/08. "I wish I knew where to still get them; I need a new one. I bought it at PetSmart about 10 years ago. They no longer sell it and couldn't help me when I asked about it. I did some research about a year ago and the closest thing I could find was called the 'The Habi Scape.' They don't have a 55 or 75 gallon size so it's no good for me but they do have other small sizes. That's the closest thing to it I could find. If you ever end up finding it PLEASE let me know." This web page has instructions on how to make your own 3D rock background: DIY Aquarium Background.

Mike later e-mailed, "Also, for future reference, I'm trying this place out for a 3D background. Finally found a place!! I'll let you know how it works out." He never got back to me but this place sells 3D rock backgrounds as of 12/14/10:

On 1/25/11, Natalie provided these two links to companies that sell 3D backgrounds. There are quite a variety of types and prices.
Designs by Nature
Not Just Fish


Justin sent these photos on 1/4/07 of his tank setups. There appear to be various baby turtles in the tanks.
100 gallon turtle tank
100 gallon turtle tank - a baby turtle is on the far left
100 gallon turtle tank
55 gallon turtle tank
Turtle Tank - with two baby turtles; Florida red-bellied turtle in the back and Southern painted turtle in the front


There are photos of my tank setups on my pages on Tator and Snappy.

There are photos of Randy's turtles and their setups on Randy's page.

There are photos of Jon's turtle tank on his page.

Turtle Tank Links

Turtlecare.net - their page on turtle setups.

Happy Turtle - their page on turtle setups.

See my other turtle links (some contain tank information and some do not) section.

If you know of any good sites, please let me know!

Pet Link Banner Exchange:

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