By Chris Leone
European Pond Turtle (Emys orbicularis ssp)
The European pond turtle frequents various aquatic habitats across much of Europe along with Northwestern Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. It inhabits ponds, wet meadows, canals, marshes, streams, bogs and vernal pools along with other wetlands. In some areas they remain quite abundant. Emys are avid baskers and will take to any log, snag, rock or floating debris to soak up the sun. Even on cool days with little sunlight, they will make their best attempt at absorbing whatever rays are breaking through the cloud cover. Like most semi-aquatic turtles in nature, they will swiftly plunge into the water at the sight of a human or potential predator. Their powerful limbs and sharp nails enable them to swim through the water with ease and burrow into the muddy bottom or under leaves. European pond turtles are fond of aquatic vegetation and seek refuge in it whenever possible.
An oval or roundish carapace with only minimal flaring of the marginal scutes (males) is jet black to yellow-green in color. It is littered with an array of small yellow or white spots, flecks and dots. Sometimes lines or rays form. The shell is smooth, "bowling ball-like" and when wet, it glistens in the sun as they bask in the day's heat. The plastron is hinged allowing the turtles to only partially close up and it is a mixture of light and dark pigments. The head is large, slightly pointed, yet sometimes blunt with a smooth appearance. The skin of the head is dark, often black with small yellow flecks or dots. The limbs are dark with yellow stripes or spots. The underside of the neck may or may not be flecked with an abundance of yellow. Emys orbicularis is now recognized by several subspecies which are differentiated by color, size and markings, bu more importantly by place of origin. For instance, the Sicilian pond turtle (Emys (orbicularis) trinacris) is noted for a striking yellow-green carapace and skin color. The Hellenic pond turtle (Emys orbicularis orbicularis) may have a high concentration of flecking/spotting on the shell while many Russian examples of Emys orbicularis orbicularis may be entirely black. The color of the iris in males may change from subspecies to subspecies as well. An adult size of 4.75" all the way up to 10" is noted with males being smaller. We have noticed a marked difference in size between our Hellenic and Russian examples with the Russians being considerably larger. Hatchling European pond turtles (tiny dark brown turtles with minimal light colored areas) all look extremely similar thus making it near impossible to know the correct subspecies without knowledge of their origin (or their parents' origin).
European pond turtles are quite similar to the Blanding's turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) in appearance and habits. In fact, at one time, the two were grouped together in the genus Emys. Further studies eventually revealed that the two turtles should be separated according to internal skeletal differences.
European pond turtles are readily available for sale as captive bred babies each year. Keepers across the globe are having high levels of success breeding them and they have proven to be rather prolific when set up correctly. Finding an actually pure subspecies of Emys orbicularis is unfortunately tricky and many keepers do not even know which ones they have. All subspecies that have been kept in captivity are reported to be hardy and fairly easy to keep. Each year, we offer beautiful neonate European pond turtles for sale produced by our long term adult Hellenic and Russian adults.
Like the Blanding's turtle, the European pond turtle has the potential to live a very, very long time. Some reports note a life span of 30 to 50 years while others suggest over 100 years.
Emys orbicularis should only be housed indoors while they are young. A 20 gallon long aquarium will suffice for 1 to 3 hatchlings. A 40 gallon breeder is even better and Rubbermaid totes prove to be excellent enclosures as well. They are also easy to clean. Once the turtles are at a less vulnerable size (4” SCL or more) they can be moved outdoors. We recommend an outdoor, in-ground pond. These turtles need both swimming room and walking room. Nesting females also require this large land area to search for an appropriate site for oviposition. A 30x30 foot pen with a 15x15 water area in it will suffice for a small group of adults (1.3 or 2.6). The walls of the pen must be secure to keep the turtles in. This means, they should be at least 18” high and dug into the ground by about 6”. The walls can be made out of pressure treated wood, cement blocking, landscaping timbers and other fencing materials. These turtles can climb well so be sure to take appropriate measures in preventing escapes. The water area should be made of 45 to 65 mil fish friendly, pond liner and must be more than 18” deep. This is where the turtles will spend the winter so an adequate depth is crucial to avoid a solid freeze. Be sure to gradually slope the pond basin when digging it so that the turtles can easily get in and out of the water. The deepest part should be in the middle. Aquatic and land vegetation is an absolute must. Water hyacinth, water lettuce, lotus, various lilies, iris, cattails, frog bit and anacharis are all excellent choices for the pond itself. The turtles will greatly appreciate these items by hiding in them and searching for food. The land area can be planted with many different low lying shrubs, grasses and flowering plants. In the summer months, the turtles will leave the pond at times to hide under the foliage to escape the extreme heat and warming water. A gravel or sandy area should also be provided for the females to lay their eggs. This area should have little cover. Logs, drift wood or planking can be added to the water area as basking platforms. Avoid using too many rocks because they can be abrasive to the turtles’ plastrons. Filtration of the pond is optional. We prefer to use as many live plants as possible because they naturally filter the water. A peat based bottom is provided in which the plants are able to root in and grow. In combination with over flowing the pond bi-weekly, the plants help to keep the water in good condition. This species does incredibly well in these outdoor situations and are capable of surviving even the coldest of winters. Some of our Emys will even move about under thick ice and come up for a breath of air randomly during the cold season.
Lighting, Temperature and Humidity
Natural sunlight is of course unbeatable and even baby European pond turtles should receive at least some outdoor time in predator protected units. However, there are several lighting options for keeping them inside. Mercury vapor bulbs, daylight spot bulbs, infrared bulbs and fluorescent tube lights are all available to keepers today. We prefer Mercury vapor bulbs which provide both UVA and UVB to the turtles. 100-150 watt bulbs over a dry basking area of drift wood or cork bark do the trick. Aquarium heaters are not needed for this species and no additional heat source is necessary at night. The lights should be turned on in the morning and left on for 12 to 14 hours. It’s important to turn them off at night so that the turtles are exposed to a more natural, daily cycle like they would experience outdoors.
Indoors, I prefer to not use any substrate simply because without it, the enclosures are much easier to clean. I especially like to do this because I do not use filters. Instead, I choose to do frequent water changes with European pond turtles. If you would like to use a substrate, pea gravel is a good option. Outdoors, the pond area should have a 12-24” layer of peat and mud for the turtles to burrow into and for the plants to take root in. Allow leaves to collect in the pond during the fall because they will aid the turtles in hunkering down for hibernation.
This species is incredibly aggressive at feeding time. They come off as complete "savages" when we offer food and we feed the following items: fish, shrimp, beef heart, beef liver, chicken gizzards and hearts, chicken breast, ground turkey meat, tadpoles, whole frogs, earthworms, superworms, wax worms, pinkies, whole skinned mice, commercial pellets, fresh pet wet dog food, snails and slugs. They are also capable of stripping a chicken bone clean of any meat, cartilage or skin. In the summer, we will throw raw chicken legs, thighs and wings to our pond turtles only to find the bones and nothing else afterwards.
They can certainly become obese so be careful not to over-feed.
This is an extremely responsive species. They will quickly associate their keepers as a food source which prompts an aggressive response. Just like our Blanding’s turtles, our Emys will notice us from a distance and will actively move toward us. They will swim powerfully, climbing out of the water almost agilely to get to a potential food item. They learn to lose their fear of humans rather swiftly. They are a very rewarding turtle to work with to say the least.
Reproduction and Breeding
Male European pond turtles have a nasty habit of nipping at each other's tails. Many adult males have stubbed or club tails from battles early on. Unfortunately they can also do this to uncooperative females during breeding attempts. They are extremely relentless breeders so watch out for problematic males with severe attitudes. Injury can and does occur. Females become very, very restless once they become gravid and are ready to lay their eggs. They will leave the water every evening and pace the entire enclosure for hours on end. This can last for more than two weeks before they finally settle on an area for oviposition. They seem to prefer moist soil, clay or loamy substrate and will sometimes dig under a plant. Our Emys orbicularis hellenica favor hosta plants. Perhaps the wide leaves offer them a sense of security while they remain vulnerable as they nest. Some Emys will also nest in gravel areas. Between 6 and sometimes more than 15 hard-shelled eggs are deposited in a single clutch and some females will double clutch in a given season. The eggs are very much like tortoise eggs, brittle and fragile. They are placed on dry vermiculite in deli cup containers. We keep the vermiculite dry to avoid cracks in the eggs as they develop. Humidity is kept up in the incubator by supplying bowls of water. A temperature of 86.5F is practiced to produce both males and females and to avoid anomolies. Towards the end of incubation (the eggs can take up to 90 days to hatch) we begin lightly misting them with a spray bottle. Like clockwork, the neonates begin pipping and emerge from their eggs. They are tiny, equipped with a sharp "egg tooth" and are excellent swimmers right away. They will usually begin feeding 3 to 7 days after hatching.
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