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Softshell Turtle / Chinese Softshell Turtle Care Sheet

Scientific Facts

NameChinese Softshell Turtle
Scientific NamePelodiscus Sinensis
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
SizeFemale: 13 inches (33 cm)Male: 11 inches (27 cm)
OriginNortheast China
Life Span50 years and longer
HabitatLakes, ponds, rivers, creeks, canals or streams
Climate ToleranceNative climates

Physical Description

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As their name implies, they are called “softshell” because their carapace only has little horny scutes. Their carapace is pliable and leathery, especially on the sides. There are soft turtles that have a carapace with a solid bone beneath. The flexible shells of these turtles enable them to move easily in a freshwater, muddy lake and in some other bodies of water. 

The carapace of the softshell turtle is usually olive in a color that may have dark blotches. The limbs and the head are also olive in color with hind limbs and forelimbs that are orange-red ventrally while its tail has dark blotches until the posterior side of each thigh. Its plastron is orange-red with large dark blotches. The dark flecks on its head have dark lines that radiate from the eyes. The throat is mottled, and some have dark bars on the lips.

A female Chinese softshell turtle can reach up to 13 inches (33 cm) while a male Chinese softshell turtle reaches up to 11 inches (27 cm). Its flattened shape seems strange, but it is hydrodynamically efficient, and this is the reason why they can move fast whether inland or in water. This is one of a kind turtle species that can move fast, contradictory to the usual turtle that is slow-paced.

Where to Find this Species

This Chinese softshell turtle is native to China most particular in Fujian, Anhui, Gansu, Hebei, 

The Chinese softshell turtle is endemic to China, where it is found in Anhui, Fujian, Gansu, Guizhou, Hainan, Guangdong, Hebei, Henan, Hong Kong, Hubei, Hunan, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Shandong, Shanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan and Zhejiang Provinces, as well as Taiwan.

Since there is a long tradition of the use of the Chinese softshell turtle as a food and herbal medicine, it is quite difficult to determine its exact native range. Aside from places in China, it is now seen in different parts of the world usually spread by migrating people. There are about 25 species of softshell turtle are spread across the four continents which are North America, Australia, Asia, and Africa.

Habitat

Chinese softshell turtles live in brackish and freshwater. These are usually seen in the lakes, ponds, rivers, creeks, canals or streams with slow currents. In some parts of Hawaii, these turtles are found in marshes and drainage ditches. They are not too picky in terms of their habitat if there is dry sand or soil where they can lie and bask, and there is water where they can make their bodies refreshed then they are all set.

Diet

It is easy to feed these turtles because they are largely carnivorous. They usually eat remains of fish, mollusks, crustaceans, insects, worms, and seeds of plants in the marsh. You can also feed them with commercially manufactured aquatic turtle diets. The ideal nutrient ratio that the turtle receives should be: protein level of 38.3%, average fat was 7.6%, fiber level at 3.5% and 49.5% for carbohydrates. 

These fats and proteins are essential for the turtle’s growth. These would be a helpful guide when formulating their diet. Exposing your soft-shells to a wide range of food items allows them to consume macro- and micronutrients necessary for body growth and for good shell maintenance. Your turtle may suffer from metabolic bone diseases that soften its soft shell if it lacks certain nutrients such as vitamin D3, calcium, and phosphorus.

Movement

These turtles have tube-like nostrils with a long snout that enables them to make a snorkel motion in shallow water. They love to lie at the bottom, buried in the mud or sand when resting with their head lifted to breathe or snatch at prey. They often submerge their heads in the water as an adaptation for them to survive brackish water or not so ideal environment.

It has a rubber lip that covers the sharp ridges. Their ability to defend themselves needs to be respected or else they can give you a bite in as fast as a lightning-quick with a cut of scalpel-like. Softshell turtles that were grown in the wild tend to have an aggressive behavior than those grown in captivity.

Adaptation

This Chinese soft-shelled has a unique adaptation that has the characteristics to withstand less-than-ideal water conditions and some environmental conditions. They can live and adapt well in a harsh water environment because the polluted water or brackish water doesn’t have to travel into their kidneys, they have a filtering system in their bodies where the freshwater is the one being absorbed while the waste out of it is excreted together with urea. this is brought by its genes that can produce protein for urea secretion.

When they sense harm or provocation, they will excrete a foul-smelling fluid from the pores of their anterior edge of the shells. They also have a slimy texture to avoid them from being scratched. They also have the ability to blend with their surroundings are known as cryptic camouflage to hide from predators and to ambush their suspecting prey.

Life Cycle

These kinds of turtles reach sexual maturity at around 4 and 6 years of age. They have the ability to mate underwater or just on the surface. The male turtle will hold the female’s carapace together with its forelimbs, he will then bite her neck, head, and forelimbs. The sperm may retain by the female turtle for almost a year after copulation. 8-30 laid eggs by female turtle are expected in a clutch, and they may still lay at least 2 to 5 clutches each year.

The eggs laid in the nest is about 76–102 mm (3–4 in), it is spherical in shape and has about 20 mm (0.79 in) in diameter. The incubation period may be longer or shorter depending on what temperature is in usually. The average hatchling carapace length is about 1 inch or 25 sane with its width.

Breeding

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During the turtle’s maturity age between 4-6 years of age, the mating process is most successful. The mating is ideal from March to September or during the spring period to have an egg-laying in March, which has a warmer climate. The female turtles lay their eggs in soft and sandy soil. If they lay their eggs in captivity, a dry area with a deep layer of the appropriate substrate is ideal to avoid retained eggs or egg binding.

Males are generally smaller than females, and they have a prominent tail. If you want to start having a laid egg turtle, you can place it in vermiculite or any suitable incubation medium to maintain a temperature of 80 degrees with 80 percent humidity. It is important to maintain a high humidity level that is why it is advisable to invest in a hygrometer to ensure the humidity level is checked to maintain just the ideal humidity level to avoid drying or drowning them out.

After an average period of 60 to 80 days incubation period, except that the baby turtle will hatch. Breeding soft-shelled is totally a rewarding and beneficial endeavor that is well worth the time and effort.

How they lay their Eggs

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They lay their eggs in mud or in the sand near the river banks, pools or streams which they live. 

Turtle females spawn simultaneously on days when there is heavy thunderous rain. When there is a disturbing layer of soil or footmarks are observed on the egg-laying sites, they cover the newly-laid eggs by upturning thin layers of sand and soil and by making small holes of 4-5 cm in diameter and 10-15 cm deep. The eggs are then stacked in layers from the bottom to the mouth of the nest. The newly-laid eggs stick together with their eggshells that are soft and leathery. After spawning, turtle females move to a place near their nest for a rest and to protect their eggs.

Behavior

Soft-shell turtles are known to be voracious but grow slowly. They spend almost half of their lives in aquatic resources but come ashore when the weather is favorable to sunbathe. It is also favorable for their bodies to stay in the land for quite some time to maintain body temperature, to control parasite infestations and in order to lay eggs. They have the ability to breathe through their lungs, but they can also absorb oxygen while submerged through their skin, throat or cloaca.

They have an aggressive disposition like some carnivores do, but they are more timorous, and they would submerge themselves in hiding places such as underwater when a noise or human/animal shadows would show up. When they are starving or injured, that is the time that they can be totally aggressive. When it comes to their eating patterns, they tend to have more appetite during summer while they show less appetite during winter, but nevertheless, they are very tolerant of starvation.

Common Diseases of Softshell Turtle

Different kinds of diseases may infest a softshell turtle if grown in a not so ideal environment. These diseases can highly be prevented by maintaining proper nutrition, good water quality, and adequate feed levels. There are also cases that even if you have well-cared the turtle, diseases, and infections can occur, that is why you need to have knowledge about how to possibly apply first aid to extend its lifespan. The most common diseases are described as follows:

Fungal infections

Your softshell turtle may be infected with fungal infections if it has white patches that have cotton-like dirty material on the skin. There are some ointments or oils that can be applied to the affected area for about 3-4 days.

Septicaemic cutaneous ulcerative disease

The manifestations of this disease can be saw if there are an underlying purulent discharge, petechial hemorrhages on the shell, and skin, anorexia and liver necrosis. Aside from observing proper hygiene, the turtle needs to undergo penicillin medication for 3-4 days.

Necrotic stomatitis

You know that your turtle is suffering from this disease if there is redness of the mouth lining, excessive salivation, petechiae in the oral cavity and ulceration or granuloma formation on the mouth. You need to treat it with antibiotics for about a week.

Swollen neck disease

If the neck is swelling, difficulty in opening its eyelids and if there are manifestations of necrosis of feet & plastron, then there is a possibility that your turtle is suffering from this disease. The use of formalin and penicillin helps the condition better.

The virus caused by pathogens

This is an unnamed virus caused by pathogens. Your turtle will have a poor appetite, red blood points on neck & back, purplish-red spots on the scale, ulcerated calipash skin, white mucus layer adhering to limbs & neck and carapace perforations are the manifestations of this disease. There is still no cure for this disease bit proper pond or tank management is advisable.

Softened shell or swollen eyes

This is commonly caused by lack of calcium and other minerals such as Vitamin A. If your turtle is suffering from this illness, deformed shells and bones may be experienced with closed eyelids due to swelling of the eyes.

Preventing Diseases

Just like any other animal, softshell turtles are also prone to different diseases and illnesses. As they say, prevention is better than cure, so to avoid complications, there must be necessary actions to take into considerations to ensure good health. The number 1 on the list is maintaining cleanliness, most of the common diseases found on softshell turtles are because of different fungi and bacteria that cultivates in a dirty environment.

It is also advisable to provide your turtle with nutritious food items enriched with vitamins and minerals. This species is being used for food, we don’t want the food that we will introduce in our system is not clean. If taken in captivity, there is a high possibility that their immunity to different environmental factors is decreased that is why finding ways on how you can help cope with different harm is important as a responsible breeder. 

Relations with Humans

The Chinese softshell turtle is one of the most commonly raised in China’s turtle farms. There are over 684 Chinese turtle farms that sold over 91 million turtles of this species each year. In some parts of Asia, Chinese softshell turtles are considered a delicacy such as turtle soup while in Japan it is used as an ingredient for hōtō noodles during the winter season. 

Aside from making it into delicacies, collectors love displaying it and selling it at high prices depending on where it came from. These are the reasons why softshell turtles are due for extinction.

Facts about Softshell Turtle

  • These turtle species can grow big. The average size is around 12 inches, and they can grow up to almost 2 feet.
  • In captivity, soft-shelled turtles are known to live for a long time. They are known to live up to 50 years and possibly longer.
  • At any size, soft-shelled turtles can be very aggressive. They can cause a hazard to other living animals inside the tank at a small size while larger sizes can be dangerous for both tankmates and the keeper.
  • There are over 25 species of these turtle species that are spread across the four continents mainly Australia, Asia, North America, and Africa and they’re being spread across the different parts of the world to increase their population.
  • Be careful in handling these types of turtles because they can bite you because they do not like being handled by humans. 
  • They are known to be one of the critically endangered species and one of rarest turtles that could weigh up to 220 lbs. 
  • Softshell turtles are a delicacy in some places and such as turtle soup. This activity contributes a lot to the slow extinction of this species. 

Captive Breeding

Chinese soft-shelled turtles are commercially farmed in vast numbers for the food trade and captive breeding. In deciding to captive breed a softshell turtle, make sure that they are captive-bred from domesticated animals. And as much as possible, make sure to only get from reputable breeder or seller to ensure of its purity may it be in genes or in health. Wild-caught soft-shelled turtles are not advisable for captive breeding because it may cause harm to humans.

Availability-Where to Get One?

There are places all over the world where their population is still stable that is why you can still own it through pet shops or main breeder but for places where this species is at risk like in Canada, you may not get one from a physical store, but there are websites or online shops that sell softshell turtle.

How to Take Good Care Turtles in Captivity

There are laws that state that all turtles under 4 inches must be sold for educational or exhibition purposes only and not for commercial sales. The ones that are the best candidate for captivity are hatchling or young turtle. It is advisable to make use of a large and spacious tank around 10-15-gallon capacity. A baby softshell turtle can grow easily. 

The width or the floor space is better and much more important than how shallow or deep the water is, but some prefer a deep tank so that the turtle can burrow easily. in the sand, you can create a “sandbox” to create a platform that extends from the side, from front to back of the tank. You can also create a darkened hiding area beneath the platform so that your turtle can hide and relax along with the burrowing area. It is also important to keep the tank uncluttered to make cleaning easier and to make bacteria levels down.

Taking good care of these species of turtles does not have to be complicated. If the pet’s basic needs are provided, you can make use of other containers, not just a tank. You can utilize children’s wading pools, horse watering troughs, or you can buy turtle tubs in the market that has both wet and dry sides.

Steps in Setting up a Water Tank 

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Step 1: These turtles can be aggressive, so decide what kind of animals you would also want to live together with them. But it is more advisable not to put them together with other animals. You can get a pair of this turtle but make sure that the tank is spacious enough where they can freely move.

Step 2: Find a large tank even though you are still starting from a hatchling remember, it will grow big. It is better to buy a tank that could be used until its future growth. Since they are an active swimmer, allow at least 5 to 10 gallons of the tank for every inch of the turtle’s shell. Some owners suggest at least a 20-gallon tank for babies and a 40-gallon tank for adults.

Step 3: Once you already have an ideal tank, add a sand substrate. Soft Shelled turtle loves to immerse himself completely so make sure that there is enough sand. Make sure that the sand substrate is free from rocks or any objects that may scratch your turtle’s shell. High-quality sand that can be used is available in some pet shops.

Step 4: Exposure to light or basking is important. Make sure that there are structures in the tank that may lead to and out of the water’s surface. There should be an area where your turtle could lie completely out of the water under a heat lamp or natural sunlight. Basking under the sun is necessary for the health of your turtle, make sure the lying area or basking place is inviting because if your turtle will not bask it may lead to some infections or diseases infestations.

Step 5: Add plants just enough to oxygenate the water. The number of plants to be used depends on the size of tank but make sure that it won’t occupy a large space because there’s a tendency that your turtle will have a hard time burrowing itself in the sand. Your turtle might dig up the plants so making use of soft rocks to prevent it from uprooting.

Step 6: Change at least 40% of the water in the tank once a week. It is also advisable to treat the new water with a dechlorinating agent before putting it in the tank. Do it carefully so as not to disturb the turtle or the plants. 

Step 7: it is a must to clean the whole tank at least every 2-4 weeks depending on the size of the tank and the effectiveness of your filtration

 While cleaning the tank, place the turtle in a tub with some of the old water in it. The sand substrate must also be changed completely.

Factors to Keep in Mind Captivating Softshell Turtle

Lighting

Although this species is aquatic, exposure to heat through light exposure is important. It is observed that growing softshell turtles that did not receive light exposure are prone to shell problems. If you prefer to place it in a water tank, make sure that there is a lying area or a basking place where it could be directly exposed to light.

The rays and radiation of the light assist in bacterial and fungal infections by drying it out and be treated with the sunlight’s best antimicrobials properties. Like plants, light and dark period is also important to set a natural photoperiod for its well-being. 

Protecting the Shell

Unlike other turtles, the species of turtles lack bony protective armor, and because of this, they do not handle fouled or dirty water as well as other species. A small bump or scratch can cause different problems to pet turtles that is why in handling it is important that your hands are clean, wet and free from different accessories that can give them a scratch such as rings, watches bangles, etc.

 If you prefer to let them stay in an aquarium, see to it that they have enough space to move out, they are active and powerful swimmers. Also, keep the water well filtered and clean to prevent the build-up of potentially harmful bacteria.

pH Balance

These kinds of reptiles require a pH level of 6.5 to 7.0, which is slightly acidic. Although they can withstand any conditions, it is still advisable to give them at least the nearest figures such as 5.5 to 7.5 pH range, especially in tap water.

Heating

You can use a tube-style heater that is submersible to be placed just below the open area or the basking place or better yet in the spot where water is being filtered. The heating equipment should have a temperature that at around 80 degrees Fahrenheit for this turtle to thermoregulate. A few increases or decrease in the water temperature may not cause any harm, but if the water temperature drops and is too cold, it may slow down the metabolism that causes them to have a hard time digesting their food, and an increase in water temperature abruptly may cause sudden death.

If the heating device can easily be accessed by the turtle, make sure to have a protective shield or cover around it to avoid damaging the heating device and to ensure that the turtle will not injure itself. If there is a budget, you can make use of tanks with pre-drilled compartments where you can set up the tanks so that all needed elements are built-in and protected.

Good filtration

Too much filtration is better than not enough. You can use a 700-gallon-a-minute filter in a 125-gallon tank to help keep the water clean for shell and skin health. There are different types of filters in the market with its own pros and cons just make use of what is within your budget and what is applicable in your tank. The filtration system will make sure that the water is somehow clean even though you won’t clean it for days.

Feeding the turtles

When you are starting from hatchlings, studies show that young soft-shelled turtles are omnivorous, where their diets contain more vegetables than what the adults prefer. If you don’t have access to fish, mollusks, crustaceans, insects, and worms, you may train them to eat pellets. Start with portions like the size of the turtles’ neck and head area, and adjust the amount from there as the turtle grows. 

Frequent feedings are reserved for young turtles because they are the ones with higher metabolism due to their faster growth. Once they reach maturity or once they get larger, their feedings must be watched because overfeeding may cause different health problems such as changes in the turtle’s body chemical imbalances, obesity, heart, and circulatory defects.

Tips in Housing Them

  • Make sure that they are not placed in direct sunlight using shady spots that you can place on their housing.
  • If you have 3 or more soft-shelled turtles in an aquarium, avoid overcrowding because it may be prone to mold buildup that causes a “white-spot” fungal disease that may lead to anorexia and death if not treated.
  • As much as possible, avoid them to have scratches and bumps that may cause different kinds of infections. 
  • You could make use of tea tree oil if you observed wounds or spots in the turtles’ skin to avoid infection. 
  • Equip yourself with knowledge about the turtles’ way of surviving in the wild, their biological, physiological as well as the need to care and to be loved for them to live in an environment that is stress-free and comfortable. 

FAQ Section

Are soft soft-shelled turtles dangerous?

Even though they are being used for different delicacies, they are still considered as dangerous critters because they have long necks, powerful jaws and clawed feet that may cause severe damage to a person if they are handled carelessly.

Are softshell turtles fast?

Unlike the usual turtles that are known to move slow, softshell turtles move fast especially when agitated. They have the ability to move fast on both land and water with a speed of 15 miles per hour.

Why are they considered endangered?

As of the moment, almost all species of marine turtles are endangered because their eggs, meat, and skin are very vulnerable to poaching and their habitat is slowly deteriorating because of climate change. If you would want to take it into captivity, you need to undergo different processes just to secure a permit.

How often should softshell turtles be fed?

For young softshell turtles, they can be fed multiple times a day because they still have a faster metabolism just make sure that the amount of their food is well proportionate to the size of their body. For larger softshell turtles, it is advisable to feed them at least twice a day to avoid overfeeding that may result in some other health problems such as obesity and heart problems.

How long do they live?

They can live up to 50 years in the wild as long as there is no threat such as habitat destruction and chemical pollution. They have the ability to hibernate in mud for about half of the year or when it is winter that prolongs their lives. 

Do they need UVB?

UVB lights are important and they shouldn’t be compromised. They need to have at least twelve hours of natural sunlight or UVB radiation per day to have Vitamin D3 absorption that is essential for bone growth with the combination of calcium. Sunlight exposure is quite a problem especially if it is placed in an aquarium indoors. 

Does a softshell turtle bite?

It is quite difficult to catch a softshell turtle because they are one of the fastest swimming turtles. The spiny softshell is not recommended for picking up because they have long, flexible necks and are able to reach around and bite when they are provoked. They also make use of their claws to scratch.

Are softshell turtles’ good pets?

They can be a good pet but they are quite fragile because they lack hard carapace making them prone to injuries. You need to set up an optimal environment for them if you want to keep it as a pet. 

How long can a turtle go without eating?

An adult healthy softshell turtle can live months without any food, especially in the wild but as a good owner, it is not recommended to leave them without food for weeks. They can live long without food but at least leave them water so that they won’t be dehydrated.

How can you tell if a softshell turtle is male or female?

Male turtles of this species are significantly smaller than the females. Males have an upper shell or carapace length of only 5-10 inches while the females can have at least 7-19 inches upper shell.

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