How To Care For Your African Sideneck Turtle

Reptiles, Turtles

Last Updated - December 12, 2023

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The African Sideneck Turtle, also known as the West African Mud Turtle, marsh terrapin, or African Helmeted Turtle, is one of the most fun reptiles you can have in your aquarium. Though they require a moderate level of care, they're hardy, long-living, and relatively easy to the pet parent. In this guide to owning an African Sideneck turtle, we're answering commonly asked questions and teaching you everything you need to know about feeding and caring for your new pet.

Species Overview

This unique-looking aquatic turtle earned its name from its unusually long neck. Unlike other turtles, they aren't able to tuck their head inside their shell and instead tuck them to the side, hence the name Sideneck. This allows them to turn themselves back if they get turned upside-down.

Common Name— African Sideneck Turtle, African Helmeted Turtle, West African Mud Turtle

Scientific Name— Pelusios castaneus

Experience Level— Beginner

Adult Size— 8 to 12 inches long

Lifespan— 20+ years

In addition to their long necks, African Side Necks are easily identifiable by their large size, dark brown shell, and black marking on the top of their head. Their large eyes and curved mouth create a happy expression that's hard not to love.

As the name suggests, these hardy turtles are native to West Africa and can be found in countries like Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Senegal, and The Congo. They can be found roaming rivers, lakes, and ponds during the wet season. These aquatic turtles burrow themselves in the mud during the dry season and reemerge when temperatures cool off, and wet conditions return.

Are African Sideneck turtles good pets?

Yes! African Sideneck turtles make great pets, even if this is your first time owning a reptile. As you'll learn below, these medium-sized turtles are hardy, active, and relatively easy to care for.

Unlike other aquatic turtles, they're not known to be aggressive towards humans, though they may use their claws or snapping jaws when they're nervous, scared, or trying to escape. But with that being said, these cute turtles aren't a pet you should hold often. They're known to carry salmonella bacteria, so be sure to wash your hands any time you feed or handle your turtle.

How long does the African Side neck turtle live?

Purchasing an African Sideneck Turtle is a long-term investment. On average, these hardy aquatic turtles can live for upwards of twenty years. And with proper care, they can live for several decades.

Where can you buy a West African Mud Turtle/ African Helmeted Turtle?

While African Sideneck turtles are sold at many major pet stores, it's best to purchase one through a reputable reptile breeder that can offer additional information about your pet's breeding and health. Young African Mud turtles usually cost between $50 and $100.

Alternatively, you can acquire an African Sideneck through a rescue organization. While you won't know much about your turtle's origin or potential health problems, you'll be providing it with a second chance at life in a safe, happy home.

How to Care for an African Sideneck Turtle

Though African Side Necks do require a moderate level of care, they're still a suitable option for first-time reptile owners who are willing to take the time and effort to truly care for their pet. Here is everything you'll need to know about caring for your African Sideneck turtle.


West African mud turtles eat a similar omnivorous diet to other aquatic turtles. Most omnivorous turtle parents feed their pets a combination of turtle pellets, leafy vegetables, and animal proteins. They are not picky eaters. Here are a few common foods you can feed your African Sideneck Turtle:

  • Seafood— Fish, shrimp, prawn, and other crustaceans
  • Meat— Beef hearts, skinned mice, chicken
  • Insects— Earthworms, mealworms, crickets, krill, and aquatic insects
  • Leafy green vegetables— Romaine lettuce, collard greens, spinach, red leaf lettuce, and kale
  • Turtle pellets— Can be fed regularly to young turtles and used as a supplement for full-grown adults
  • Small Amphibians-Frogs, snails

A varied diet is a key to your African Sideneck's health. Feeding an ever-changing assortment of protein and vegetables ensures your turtle gets all the nutrients it needs to thrive. Periodically feed your turtle a calcium block or vitamin and mineral supplement from the pet store.

Unlike your cat or dog, your African Sideneck turtle should only be fed every two to three days. Daily meals can quickly lead to overfeeding and an unhealthy turtle. To help keep your tank clean, remove your turtle during mealtime and use a separate container as a feeding area. Feed multiple turtles one at a time to avoid aggressive behavior. You should feed them as much as they can eat in a few seconds.

Turtle Tank

Though African Side Necks are aquatic turtles, they require a living environment with both water and dry land. Ideally, you should house your turtle in a 75-gallon or larger aquarium covered with a metal mesh screen lid to keep your turtle safe and secure. The tank should be filled half to three-quarters full of water with large flat rocks or a floating dock for your turtle to climb on. Regularly change the water and clean your turtle tank to prevent diseases and bacteria growth. In addition to keeping the water clean, you should dechlorinate the water for 24 hours before adding it to the tank.

To make your turtle feel at home, fill the tank with a few live plants and pieces of wood that mimic their natural habitat. They'll also provide your turtle with a safe place to hide when it's feeling scared or anxious. Be sure to double-check that you're choosing turtle-safe plants and types of wood or stick to artificial plants.

You'll also want to line the bottom of your turtle's tank with a substrate. Though it isn't essential, it'll mimic your turtle's natural habitat and help them feel more at home in their aquarium. Alternatively, you can fill the bottom of the tank with sand or large pebbles. Just be sure any rocks in the tank aren't small enough that your turtle can swallow them.


As reptiles, West African Mud turtles need a supplemental heat source to maintain their body temperature. A heat lamp is absolutely essential to keeping your turtle happy and healthy. The air and water temperature in your turtle's aquarium should never dip below 70 degrees. To create the optimal living environment, set your heat lamp to have an ambient temperature of around 80 degrees and a basking temperature around 90 degrees.


Aquatic turtles also require regular UVB lighting for their bodies to metabolize calcium and vitamin D that their body needs properly. Lack of UVB light exposure can lead to bone diseases and other health problems.

To provide your turtle with light exposure, it needs a lamp with UVB bulbs around 10 to 12 inches away from your turtle's basking area. Leave the basking light on for at least 12 hours per day, turning it on when you get up in the morning and off again at night to maintain a consistent day-night schedule.

Health Problems

African Sideneck turtles are susceptible to a number of parasites, vitamin deficiencies, and respiratory infections. Common signs of illness include lethargy, lack of appetite, difficulty breathing, swelling and pus around the eyes, and a cracked or flaky shell. Should you need to take them in for an exam (or just a regular check-up), you'll need to find a reptile veterinarian that's experienced treating aquatic turtles.

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About the Author

Doctor of veterinary medicine with extensive experience in animal welfare with a strong interest in feline medicine and plans to pursue ABVP-Feline specialty board certification. A key member of many local veterinary associations and avid reader of animal related science journals and studies.