African Sideneck Tortoise

The smiling face of the African sideneck turtle makes it a popular pet among owners. It is so named because this unusual-looking water turtle is unable to insert its head into its shell, instead slipping it to the side. It can live for decades, and while they are not the easiest aquatic animals to keep, they are still considered suitable for beginners who like to go the extra mile.

Be prepared for a long term commitment, as sidenecks can live as long as 50 years if properly cared for and provided with optimal living conditions.

tortoise-dividerFast Facts about African Sideneck Turtle

Species name African side-necked turtle
Family Pelomedusidae
Treatment Level Currently
Temperature Water: 70°–75°F
Sunbathing: 95°–100°F
Temperament Shy but curious
Color Shape Dark with grayish plastron
Lifetime 20–50 years
Size 8–12 inches
Diet omnivore
Minimum Tank Size 75 gallons
Tank Setting Tanks, water, soil, sun stones
Suitability Can live with other turtles and bigger fish

African Sideneck Turtle Overview

African side-necked turtle

The African side-necked tortoise is native to Africa and has a friendly face, thanks to its large eyes and steady smile.

The turtle gets its name from the way it tucks its head. Since he can’t get his head all the way in, he has to tuck it under the shell, or to the side.

The sideneck is also known as the African helmeted tortoise, swamp terrapin, and West African mud tortoise.

They are small aquatic animals that, in the wild, have a life expectancy of about 25 years, although they can last twice as long if kept in captivity. They prefer to live in calm waters such as swamps and lakes. They may also live in shallow ponds. In water, they reach speeds of up to 12 miles per hour, but they don’t reach speeds anywhere near this on land, only reaching a walking speed of about 4 mph in their rush.

In the wild, turtles get the nickname crocodile turtles because of the way they sometimes attack their prey. When living with other large groups of sidenecks, the group will attack prey including waterbirds. They will drag their prey underwater and attack it with their sharp claws. The commotion and disturbance on the water is so great that the attack is often mistaken for a crocodile attack.

How Much Does the African Sideneck Turtle Cost?

A young turtle will cost between $50 and $100. When choosing one, make sure you choose one that does not show any signs of disease. In particular, check the shell for signs of peeling or damage. Make sure the tortoise isn’t too lethargic and make sure it’s eating properly before you consider bringing it home.

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Typical Behavior & Temperament

Shy at first, the sideneck will eventually emerge from its shell. In fact, once your sideneck has settled in his new home, he will become just as curious as a cat, which can sometimes be mistaken for aggression.

They can be playful little pets who will pop up to say hello and seem to talk to you, but like all water turtles, they should not be handled. Although they are not well known for their aggression towards humans, they can become fearful or anxious, where they tend to scratch and bite as a means of defense.

Appearance & Variety

The color of the side-necked tortoise shell can vary from tan to brown and even black. The head is equally dark, usually brown, and the belly is yellowish.

The feet of a water turtle are semi-webbed. This allows them to propel themselves through the water more quickly, making swimming and gliding underwater a lot easier. They also have long, sharp claws on the tips of their feet, which are used for hunting and killing in the wild.

Males have thicker tails. The female has a wider shell.

One of the differences between this species and other water turtles is that their shells are not hinged. This hinged shell allows other species to cover their heads completely, and the lack of hinges is the reason that the side neck is unable to retract the head completely into the shell. However, where other types of tortoise are unable to correct themselves if they end up on their backs, the sideneck has a neck so strong it can thrash its neck back and forth and eventually stand back up.

How to Care for an African Sideneck Tortoise

Several species of African side-necked tortoises are considered critically endangered and should be left in the wild. However, if you save one or end up with a side-necked turtle that is not on the endangered list, you will need the following settings.

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Habitat, Tank Conditions & Settings


Sideneck turtles are aquatic and will enjoy diving and spinning underwater. It takes at least a 75 gallon tank and must be at least half full of water. There should be some dry land, which can be supplemented with rocks or dry dock areas. You will need a good water filter as turtles defecate in the water, which will also need to be changed weekly to ensure your turtle stays healthy.


Offer a heating lamp and make sure the tank is around 80° F with a slightly hotter basking area, usually 90° F. Use a thermostat to monitor and regulate the temperature, making sure the temperature doesn’t drop too low even at night when the sun light is off.


Provide UVB light on a 12 hour cycle. This will mimic the day/night cycle your tortoise will enjoy in the wild and the UVB will help your sideneck get the amount of UVB it needs. In turn, vitamin D will help sidenecks synthesize calcium.


Substrate is not important to your turtle, and it can make cleaning the tank more difficult. However, it can also imitate some elements of nature around the turtle. If you are offering a substrate, use sand, gravel, or other natural material.

Are African Sidenecks Friendly to Other Pets?

The African sideneck will suit other tortoises of the same species. You can keep several sidenecks together, though you should be prepared for egg clutches if you do. They can also live with other turtle species and can even live with larger fish. However, remember that small fish are part of the turtle’s diet, so be careful when placing turtles and fish in the same tank.

Tortoises should never be introduced to cats, dogs, or any other type of animal, as bad encounters can cause stress that can make your side neck hurt.

What Feeds Your African Sideneck Tortoise?

Like most other water turtles, the African Sideneck is omnivorous. This means that he eats anything. It will eat plants, insects, fish and food pellets. In fact, pellets can be a useful food source because they contain additional vitamins and minerals that may not be sourced from natural foods.

Feed every 24 hours, allowing your turtle to eat as much as it wants for about 30 minutes, then remove any uneaten food. If you leave food out for a long time, it will clog the water filter and cause problems for the water and turtles.

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Keeping Your Sideneck Turtle Healthy

Roundworms and other parasites are common in African side-necked turtles. Finding symptoms is difficult which also makes them difficult to treat effectively. Get your turtle checked by a specialist veterinarian regularly, and they will be able to do a parasite check for you.

Vitamin A deficiency is another common problem. Look for swelling around the eyes and seek veterinary help immediately if proven.

Shell rot, which begins as a bacterial infection, can cause painful ulcers on the shell.

Make sure the water temperature is kept constant and that your tortoise is fed an appropriate diet. Clean and change the water regularly to remove unwanted material and to ensure your turtle lives in suitable water. Also keep the ambient, water and drying temperatures within the appropriate range, as if your tortoise is too hot or too cold, it can cause illness.


When a male is ready to breed, he will swing his head towards the female. If she wants, the female will stand still or nod her head back. If he snaps and leaves, it means he’s not ready. Turtles can have many clutches in a year, laying up to 10 eggs per clutch, and the female will lay her eggs in nests about 15 cm deep.

Interestingly, the sex of the young is determined by the temperature of the water. Warm and cold temperatures produce female offspring, while moderate temperatures will produce mostly male turtles.

tortoise-dividerAre African Sideneck Tortoises Right For You?

The African sideneck turtle is an unusual species of water turtle, for many reasons, not least because it is unable to retract its head back into its shell and it is the position of its final head rest that gives it its common name sideneck turtle. It also has a smile that looks fixed and permanent and has earned the nickname the crocodile turtle because, when hunting in groups in the wild, the commotion it causes underwater makes it look like a crocodile attack.

Featured Image Credit: Megan Czarnocki, Shutterstock

African Sideneck Tortoise
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