Proper Pet Care

Proper Pet Care: Turtles and Tortoises

Are you considering a turtle or tortoise for your next pet? Our Proper Pet Care series can help you make your decision!  Our zookeepers broke down a few considerations a prospective pet owner should make before choosing a species of turtle or tortoise. These animals are a well loved bunch, but caring for one of them can be deceptively difficult. In the video below, zookeepers Geordi and Patrick discuss a few things potential turtle or tortoise owners ought to know before purchasing a pet like this.

Size, habitat, and lifespan

Many species of turtle commonly sold in pet stores actually require complex care. Red-eared sliders are a great example of this. When a person buys a red-eared slider, they typically don’t realize that these turtles can grow to have a foot long carapace, or shell length. A turtle this size requires a very large tank with a good filtration system. Turtles in general are very messy animals to care for. They prefer to be solitary, and some males will even fight to the death if they are placed in a tank together.

Furthermore, turtles and tortoises live very long lives. The red-eared slider can live to be about 25-30 years old. That’s a huge commitment for a pet, especially one that needs special equipment and care.


Diet is a crucial part of keeping turtles and tortoises healthy. They require a variety of specialized pellets, greens, insects, and fruit. Each species of turtle or tortoise requires its own particular diet, so a lot of research is required before purchasing an animal like this.

Health concerns

The consequences of improper care can be enormous for a turtle or tortoise. For tortoises, pyramiding on the shell becomes a problem when their habitat lacks the humidity they require in their formative years. For both turtles and tortoises, metabolic bone disease (MBD), or the softening of the bone, is the result of too little sunlight or calcium in their diet.

Is a turtle or tortoise right for me?

Only you can decide whether or not one of these animals is right for you. If you have done extensive research on your specific breed, and you are ready to make the time commitment and the financial commitment, a turtle or tortoise can be very a rewarding pet to keep. A beginner-friendly turtle to start with is the painted turtle, which we have created a care sheet for here.

We hope you have found this information helpful! Always remember to do your own research on the specific species of animal you’d like to own as a pet. An understanding of your pet’s specific needs is the best way to keep them healthy and safe.


Reptiland Roundup: Turtles and Tortoises

Happy International Turtle & Tortoise Week!

In honor of International Turtle and Tortoise Week, we wanted to show off all the wonderful species of turtles and tortoises we have here at the zoo. What’s the difference between the two? The main thing that distinguishes a turtle from a tortoise is that turtles live in water at least some of the time while tortoises live on land. Read on to learn more about the species we have here!


Alligator Snapping Turtle

Alligator snappers are among the heaviest freshwater turtles in the world, weighing an average of 45 lbs. These powerful animals can bite through the handle of a broom! You can find ours in the exhibit gallery.


Eastern box turtle

Even though Eastern box turtles are turtles, they spend most of their lives on land. This turtle has a very high human-induced mortality rate, so it is actually illegal to catch them from the wild and keep them as pets. See our box turtles in the outdoor pond exhibit!


Florida softshell turtle

The Florida softshell turtle is a freshwater turtle with a long neck and a snorkel-like nose. The females get considerably larger than the males—females weigh an average of 15 lbs, while males only average about 6 lbs. You can find ours in the exhibit gallery, but you may need to look closely—sometimes they burrow under the pebbles!



Mata mata turtle

The mata mata turtle is an aquatic turtle that prefers shallow, stagnant or slow-moving bodies of water. Mata mata turtles cannot chew due to the structure of their mouths, so they suction feed. You can find ours in the exhibit gallery!


Painted turtle

Painted turtles are a freshwater turtle native to the United States. Four U.S. states have actually named the painted turtle their state reptile! Find our painted turtles basking in the sun in the outdoor pond exhibit on warm days.




Pond slider turtle

The pond slider turtle is a common semi-aquatic turtle with a few different subspecies. These turtles are extremely popular in the pet trade, but conservationists warn against pet owners releasing them into the wild since they are an invasive species. Find our many rescued pond slider turtles in the outdoor pond exhibit!


Snake-necked turtle

The snake-necked turtle is named for its long, flexible neck. Our particular species of snake-necked turtle, chelodina mccordi, is one of the most sought-after turtles in the exotic pet trade. Because of this, they are critically endangered. Ours are swimming in the exhibit gallery!


Wood turtle

Wood turtles are a North American species of turtle that can be found near shallow, clear streams of water. Humans and other animals pose a significant threat to the wood turtle at all stages of its life. If unharmed, these turtles can live for 40 years in the wild and up to 58 in captivity. You can see ours in the outdoor pond exhibit!


Aldabra tortoise

Aldabra tortoises are one of the largest species of tortoise in the world, similar in size to the Galapagos tortoise! You can find our fully grown Aldabra tortoises, Al and Henry, in the Island Giants building. We even have a few young Aldabras who have not reached their full size yet in our exhibit gallery!


Forest tortoise

The forest tortoise is the sixth-largest species of tortoise on earth. These tortoises have a unique sound—they can make a noise that sounds like a baby cooing with a raspy voice. You can find ours hanging out with the iguanas in the exhibit gallery!

Indian star tortoise

The Indian star tortoise is an endangered species of tortoise due to its popularity in the exotic pet trade. The unique shape of their shell assists them in righting themselves when they get turned over. You can find ours in the exhibit gallery!

We hope you enjoyed learning more about our turtles and tortoises. Help us celebrate International Turtle and Tortoise Week by visiting them here at the zoo!

Visiting the Galapagos Islands


Our plane touched down an hour late on Baltra – one of 14 major islands that make up the Galapagos archipelago. The Baltra landing strip was built by the United States during World War II, and now serves as the primary means for visitors to arrive on and depart from the islands. We paid our entrance fee into Galapagos National Park, and soon we were on our way to meet our boat, the Monserrat. Our crew greeted us with smiles, Pisco Sours, and took our luggage to our cabins. While we ate a late lunch, the boat began our week long cruise.

The Galapagos Islands are owned by Ecuador and straddle the equator 600 miles west of the mainland of South America. Each island is an exposed volcanic mountaintop –older ones being relatively flatter due to wind and water erosion. Newer islands are mountainous, with some volcanoes still erupting periodically. When Charles Darwin spent a month here in 1835, he wrote that from the water the land looked most uninviting, but the ever-curious Darwin explored four of the islands during the voyage of the HMS Beagle. He discovered that each island was home to many unique plants and animals. Not only were most different from those found on the mainland, but many were even different from one island to the next. In some cases, they are in view of one another. This seemed strange indeed, and although Darwin did not come up with his theory of natural selection during the voyage, as is widely believed, it is obvious from his notes that he suspected the islands might provide answers as to how new species are created. How was it, he wondered, that populations of mocking birds, finches, and giant tortoises could differ so much from island to island? They were obviously related, but different enough on some islands to be considered a separate race or species. Two years after his five year voyage his ideas began to coalesce, which led to his revolutionary book, On the Origin of Species in 1859.

And now, our group of nineteen people from Pennsylvania and Delaware found itself retracing some of Darwin’s footsteps. We visited two islands each day and saw wild roaming 500-pound tortoises, land iguanas, marine iguanas, lava lizards, sea lions, tropic birds, hawks, boobies, and a myriad of other species. Snorkelers swam with white-tipped sharks, green sea turtles, and untold numbers of beautiful tropical fish.

Galapagos Islands

The islands are hot and usually covered with volcanic cinders or rocks. On many islands we went ashore on, there were magnificent beaches with sands that ranged in color from black to green to white. Plant life is fragile; rules about where visitors may walk were strictly enforced, but there was never a need to leave the path to see animals. They’re everywhere, often lying or nesting immediately on the path at your feet.

Due to the heat, hikes were taken at a slow pace. Our knowledgeable guides interpreted the natural history and answered questions. After we completed our walk, we loaded back into our dingy (called a panga), which motored us back to the Monserrat for lunch/dinner.

The food aboard the Monserrat was well presented and delicious. There was fish, poultry, beef, and fresh fruit dishes that concluded with wonderful desserts. The crew catered to our every need. Evenings were spent over wine, beer, mixed drinks, word games, and good conversation. The only near disaster occurred when our group discovered we had wiped out the boat’s supply of cabernet halfway through the cruise! The solution was near at hand: a National Geographic boat anchored next to the Monseratt had an extra supply, so our group abandoned any immediate thoughts of mutiny.

We returned to the wonderful Mercure hotel in Quito where we had started our adventure ten days earlier. From there, it was back to Dulles Airport, and then home.

I have led groups of visitors to the archipelago eight times over the past 20+ years, but  I have never tired of this magical place. In fact, I have another trip planned for late February 2014. Hope you join me.

-Clyde Peeling

Aldabra baby tortoises

Aldabra Tortoise Babies

Being a zoo keeper can be very exciting, especially when we get the chance to acquire and work with baby animals. We care for these young, vulnerable critters and take part in their growth and development into mature healthy adults. Some animals take longer than others to get to the adult stage such as the Aldabra tortoise babies that we just received from another AZA accredited institution. These two siblings were hatched in January 2011.

Aldabra tortoise babies


It may be 25 years before they are considered adults of breeding age, in contrast to some snake and lizard species that can hatch and grow to breeding age in a year’s time. Until the time these young animals are big enough to be housed with our current adult Aldabra tortoises, they will be kept separate and off-display where keepers can keep a close eye on their eating habits, give them an occasional soak, and record their weights over time. Within our large collection, we are currently raising two juvenile Komodo dragons, two common boa constrictors, Aldabra tortoises, frog-eyed geckos, Malaysian leaf frogs, and numerous species of poison dart frogs.