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A new Terrarium for my turtle.

 by Francesco Zezza

FOREWORD: The time has come. At last Birba’s size (Birba stands for silly boy/girl in Italian) calls for a new tank. Birba is – of course - my amphibian turtle (a Pelomedusa subrufa).

A long search resulted in the discovery of a 80*40*40 cm used tank at a really cheap price. Of course what I got for that price was the “bare” glasses, although I must confess it was in good shape. The next step was to think (and re-think) about the technical equipment that should go with this tank. Keeping turtles in tanks poses two  peculiar (related to turtles) problems.

1)     Turtles are curious, silly, messy, mighty friends and – although it may sound a bit extreme – all technical equipment (such as filters and heaters) are better kept OUTSIDE the tank and/or cleverly fixed/hidden: a broken heater and a subsequent badly burned skin is anything but uncommon with turtles (not to mention any risks related to shock from electricity).

2)      Turtles need a remarkably quantity of UVB radiation in order to “fix” calcium to their bones, shell (carapace and plastron) and the rest.

While all that is needed to cover point one is a clever set-up, using commonly known items (filter, heater and so on) point two requires a specific set-up (light set up, of course). After a bit of thinking I decided to go for a “two lamp” set-up: using a common “white” lamp in addition to a special UVB lamp meant for reptiles. These lamps are expensive (and UVB radiation falls substantially within six months or so, calling for a replacement!) but – as far as I know – there is NO other way to go, if your aim is to keep a healthy turtle indoors !

On the contrary, aquascaping is quite simple and not demanding: sand/gravel at bottom (even though there are many who prefer to go for a bare bottom tank, to avoid possible sand/gravel ingestion by the turtle during feeding time). However, aesthetics play a major role (for me) so I preferred to use sand. To minimize the risk of sand ingestion, I feed my turtle only floating pellets while fresh or frozen food is given to it with a set of pliers.  Rocks and bogwood(s) are a common addition but in this case it is wise to avoid sharp edges. Give your turtle a “dry corner” where it can rest if needed / wanted. Nothing you didn't know up to this point !

Then a short note on plants: many of them can be poisonous (or at least toxic) for your turtle so, if you decide to add some be extremely conservative and do your homework first. You must also keep in mind that no plant will stand the turtle's’ “strenght” and curiosity. Thus I decided not to add any plants in this set-up.

Finally, an external filter (Eheim) of generous (as related to the real water volume) flow/power has been chosen and a small (submersible) heater has been carefull hidden (at the expense of an accurate / rapid temperature response) among the rocks.

This being said this article will discuss:

A)                 Actual tank set up (with pictures starting with the “bare” glasses till the fully equipped tank)

B)                 Turtle pictures (some of them taken in its new environment).

The actual use of a basking spot-light is under investigation and – just in case – I will return on the matter later on … and here we go …

A) BUILDING THE TANK.

The tank (bare and cleaned glasses) placed on its stand …

A quick glance to the cover design. This is my design while the cover itself was prepared by a skilled carpenter.

Cover, still to be “laquered” with marine paint (gloss), in its final position to verify it actually fits correctly … it does!!!

Cover is divided in two parts: the front (smaller) unit will be easily removable for quick access to the tank for routine tasks (feeding and/or water change, but not only), and the rear (bigger and carrying the lamps) will be removed only for “extra” – aka unscheduled – activity (inside the tank) or long term maintenance (i.e.: replacing light tubes)

B) LANDSCAPING.

A picture is worth a thousand words although I feel that some short notes will help, too:

From left to right:

·         The “rocky island” hiding the heater (25 watt),

·         All – pictured - branches have no real “use”,

·         At right green filter pipes (water in/out) are in sight, kept in position by suction cups,

·         Sand at bottom consists of tiny particles (extremely fine) and about 3-4 cm in depth, expect your turtle to dig a lot (almost as cichlids do …)

·         The back wall (glass) is covered (from the outside) with a thin cork foil

C) FILTER (loading and positioning).

Turtles produce a lot of waste, hence filter is a key-point of any turtle set-up. Luckily turtles are not that sensitive to nitrite/nitrate (unless both of them reach sky high levels), this being said … here comes a list of my choices and the relevant set-up:

  • Overall view of the filter unit (power head in place), pipes (second from left), filter media (ceramic pipes and floss). For your information, I own this particular filter since 1985 or thereabout.

  • Following image refers to loaded filter (media inside the filter are clearly seen); the folded plastic adhesive tape labels the outlet tube.

  • Next picture: detail of both tubes (inside the tank). In the long run this will be a “messy point”: the turtle will remove suction cups, bend (and possibly break) pipes for this reason (refer to aquascaping section) pipes are “protected” by small tree branches. I DO hope this will be enough …

  • Final remark: good quality connectors (see picture below to get what I mean) will allow you to disconnect the filter canister from the tubes linking it to the tank, with the less possible spilling and effort ! Avoiding water leaks (or at least reduce them to the lowest possible level) will greatly improve the quality of your family relationship (trust me, Stefania IS patient to an extend but … DON’T push her over the edge !).

D) LAMP(S) SET-UP.

  • Two 18 watt (each) lamps are in use … only one (pictured close to its box) is “reptile-dedicated” (it has a 5% UVB output) while the second one is a ”normal” cool-white lamp designed for domestic use (the kind used to light offices and corridors). Plastic holding “clamps” are screwed to the large part of the cover (see related chapter, above) by means of two (each lamp) screw.s Both lamps stay “on” for about 11 hours a day (no separate on/off switches, therefore only one timer is used).

  • Following pictures show the “splash-proof” caps used on (both) lamps: the air-zone (above the water level) has a high humidity (because of water evaporation) and these (not cheap) items are a MUST! Water and electricity do NOT get along well together … for the very same reason the whole “ignition unit” (containing the ballasts)  has been positioned outside the tank hanging next to the back glass. I hope that when it is turned on it will produce enough heat to allow me to skip the "basking light" thus saving some electricity, the money to buy it and – last but not least – keeping the whole set-up a bit simpler …

One point has to be stressed (as far as lights are concerned): Reptiles (all of them) need a steady, constant UVB radiation ranging (according to REAL experts) from 2% of the total radiation received (for reptiles living in the forests) to 7% (and even more) for those living in sun-burnt deserts. Better yet would be – whenever possible – to keep your reptiles in the open (at least during spring/summer) to allow them a full-spectrum “sun-bath”. To speak in plain words: NO lamp (no matter its price and/or quality) will – fully – mimic the sun light!!!

To make a long story short a good quality UVB lamp will allow your turtle (same is for lizards, geckos, snakes) to thrive in its terrarium even if you happen to live at the North Pole ! However, I am considering the idea of an outside enclosure for the turtle, which is going to be used during the summer months only. Negotiations with Stefania have begun, but the future looks “dim” … I’ll keep you tuned!!!

Above: details of “splash-proof” electric caps.

E) BASKING “LIGHT”

The use of a “basking light” (in reality it is a “heat radiation unit”, allowing a smaller – dry - part of the tank to reach a remarkably higher temperature) will be considered later on, although I feel it is something I’m going to add in the end. The following box explains why a basking spot should be carefully considered.

All reptiles have NO thermal regulation (at all!) so the only way they have to modify their internal temperature is by altering their distance from spots with high temperature or keeping themselves wet or dry. In the wild this task is undertaken by the sun (which is also responsible for supplying the needed UVB radiation) and, under extreme conditions (say environment with high temp difference between night and day), it is not that uncommon to see reptiles laying for hours on a flat rock to further increase the heat absorption. As far as UVB needs are concerned you can check the "light" chapter above.

F) ALL THE REST

I’m still considering – see also the aquascaping section - the idea of using high quality, artificial plants (plastic or cloth made) for the sake of aesthetics but – I have to admit – I’m not 100% convinced. May be I’ll give it a try and then, if not completely satisfied, switch back to the current situation.

G) THE TURTLE (more pictures, about one year after acquisition).

Birba (the turtle, of course!) has been (minutes before) introduced to its new “home”. Patrolling the whole area – to be aware of what is going on! – is a must …

A nice close-up (the turtle is going to get its nose above water level to breath!) allows you to see some details of my aquascape (colour, size, thickness of the sand) and the technical equipment (both the inlet and outlet of the filter are visible).

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