The Top 7 Turtle Species For Beginners: A Comprehensive Guide

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Turtle’s popularity as a pet has steadily grown in the United States since 2008. Right now, over 2 million families own at least 1 turtle. And, as a fellow turtle lover, I can’t be any happier if you are interested in adopting one. But do you know the type of turtle you want yet? I hope you are not preventing the pet shop owner from making that decision for you.

Beginners should check handleability, size, total cost & availability before considering any pet turtle. Quickly scanning the hardiness and care guide will give you a heads-up. Usually, yellow-bellied sliders,& red-eared sliders are on the top list of turtle lovers.

Choosing the right turtle will make the caring part super easy. The experience will eventually dictate whether you like keeping turtles or not. So, it’s a critical decision. By the time you go through every turtle on my list, you will have a clear idea regarding which one you should type.

Key Takeaway

  • Snapping or softshell turtles are big. No, if you are a beginner.
  • Turtles that stay below 5 inches as adults are usually the easiest to handle.
  • Yellow-bellied sliders are the most available turtles in any pet store.
  • Musk or stinkpot turtles only release the stinky liquid if they perceive a threat.

What Does A Beginner-Friendly Turtle Mean?

Some beginners get a turtle because it’s small. How hard can it be to care for a 3-inch turtle? Only to realize the turtle doesn’t do well in captivity. I can’t imagine the trauma it will bring you if the pet somehow dies under your observation.

That’s why you have to look at these 4 basic criteria before considering any turtle as a potential pet.

1. Handleability

Check the handleability score online for every turtle you like. As a beginner, you should only get turtles that are easy to handle. And, in case you mishandle it some time (which you will), the turtle should be calm enough not to attack you.

For example, if you end up touching a snapping turtle on the wrong side, it will immediately bite your hand. Your fingers might get seriously injured because they have a flexible neck and strong beak.

On the other hand, some turtles just throw their legs into the air and try to escape from you. That’s how you know you are doing something wrong. Plus, they are not extremely sensitive to touch.

They should be fine if you don’t squeeze them or pull their tails. So, ensure your safety by checking the handleability of turtles.

2. Size

African Sulcata tortoise has a great temperament and is suitable for pets. However, they can grow up to 20 inches as adults. And 1 Sulcata tortoise can weigh as much as 70 – 100 pounds.

That’s huge.

You will have a hard time handling it and preparing an enclosure for it. Experts even suggest a 75-gallon tank for a 5-8-inch turtle.

So, imagine the size of habitat you will have to create for 1 Sulcata. That’s too much work or hassle for a newbie.

I recommend turtles within 8 inches (adult) to beginners. The smaller you can go in size, the easier it will be.

3. Hardiness

Hardiness is another crucial factor. A hardy turtle can fight off harmful bacteria easily, along with other life-threatening diseases. As a beginner, you will need help identifying any early signs of illness in your turtle.

For example, some turtle species react badly to vitamin A deficiency. They end up with swollen eyes or noses.

Of course, you, as a beginner, wouldn’t know it. That’s why getting one with a high hardiness sounds better to me.

4. Upfront Cost

Cost depends on a lot of things. For example, you chose a rare species like leatherback turtle. There is a high chance it’s not available in your city. What you have to do is contact a breeder and wait for a few months. This is already a complicated process.

And, even if you get a locally available turtle, the animal might need extensive vet care and expensive food. For example, newborn turtles require lots of protein and other supplements in their diet.

You must rely on commercial-grade pellets and feeder fish to fulfil their needs. That’s gonna cost you a lot. On the other hand, if you adopt a fully grown turtle, you can feed it veggies daily.

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The Top 7 Turtle Species Recommended For Beginners

1. Red-Eared Slider

Red-eared sliders are native species of the mid-western USA. Over the years, people have really started to value this turtle species. No wonder it is the most available pet turtle in the USA.

That’s good, considering you don’t have to worry about its availability in your local pet store. In case you have already visited stores in search of a perfect turtle, I am sure you have already seen one. They have beautiful yellow or green stripes all over the skin and shell.

If I say one thing about red-eared sliders, it would be how friendly they are. These beautiful creatures try their best to adapt to new habitats. It’s a quality any beginner pet owner will appreciate.

Scientific NameTrachemys scripta elegans
SizeUp to 12 inches (adult)
Lifespan20-30 years
Difficulty LevelEasy
SpecialtyExtremely active

To make sure you are properly taking care of your red-eared slider, remember that they need daily basking facilities. They are wonderful swimmers. But you will see them coming up often to maintain body temperature.

Unlike some turtle species, the red-eared ones can’t regulate their body temperature. They entirely depend on their caretaker in this case.

However, no need to feel burdened. You can always get a heater to curate the ideal tank temperature for your pets.

On the good side, these turtles are exceptionally friendly. I have seen pet red sliders coming out of tanks to greet their owners. Some of them even demand playtime. Isn’t that just wonderful?

2. Eastern Box Turtle

Many people will be surprised to see an eastern box turtle on this list. These turtles are usually found in areas abundant in bushes, damp soil, etc. Florida and Maine are two famous places where many box turtles are rescued yearly.

But that’s not the point.

The thing is, they are not the friendliest turtles you find in the wild. There are actual incidents of these box turtles trying to bite the owner’s hands. Even though they bite with beaks, it does hurt.

However, my observation is slightly different. Eastern box turtles only attack when you touch their shells inappropriately. As a turtle lover, you must know that shells are like exterior bones and contain a lot of sensitivity.

Scientific NameTerrapene carolina
SizeUp to 6 inches (adult)
Lifespan40-50 years
Difficulty Levelmedium
Temperamentill-tempered (if mishandled)
SpecialtyLives long

Other than that, eastern box turtles don’t get friendly too quickly. But they do socialize when they feel safe with you. They might move their heads to see you better or make noise when you pass by. But let’s not consider it to be a minus point since no one volunteers to raise a turtle for affection or attention.

On the good side, these turtles do really well in captivity. Some of them even live for 40 years. Isn’t it great to have the same pet for almost all your life?

As for the maintenance part, these turtles remain below 6-7 inches. It’s way easier to handle for beginners. Plus, the turtles do well in both plant-based and meat-based diets. You can even offer them commercial turtle pellets or fruit pieces.

The only thing that requires effort is the habitat build-up. You have to keep 3 separate sections in the tank: water, basking platform and hiding area. The ground should be covered with soil or grass to imitate their natural habitat.

Many people get intimidated by the long list of tank settings. But trust me, once you set it up once and for all, the turtle won’t give you much headachel.

3. Mississippi Map Turtle

One interesting thing about Mississippi map turtles is that they are not native to Mississippi. And the “map” in their name says a lot about their shell design. The shell is usually dark olive with yellow lines connecting each other. It looks like a map from afar.

The most distinctive feature of Mississippi map turtles is that they are saw-backed. The upper shell contains a saw-like bump. It’s rare to find in other turtle species.

Also, map turtles have beautiful, bright eyes. These unique physical traits make them a subject of admiration among reptile lovers.

Scientific NameGraptemys pseudogeographica kohni
SizeUp to 10 inches (adult)
Lifespan15-20 years
Difficulty Levelmedium
TemperamentStressed & wary

They are not easy to keep. You see, map turtles like being in the water for most part of the day. Even when you notice them getting sunbathed, they will quickly dive underwater as soon as they notice you. So, you are going to have a hard time bonding.

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However, unlike snapping or softshell turtles, they are not dangerous or aggressive. That’s why, as a beginner who is expected to mishandle the turtle from time to time, I would rather choose a map turtle.

But to make sure your map turtle is genuinely happy and content, bring some friends for it. Mississippi map turtles do best in the community. You will see the shy and wary turtle suddenly getting all energized. It’s a good sign.

But don’t keep too many female ones in the same tank. As female map turtles are twice the size of male ones, it’s better for the community to have fewer females and more males.

Moving on to the maintenance guide, Mississippi map turtles require a big water habitat. They also prefer eating underwater. So, you have to clean the water more frequently for these aquatic reptiles.

yellow bellied slider

4. Yellow-Bellied Slider Turtle

Here’s another slider of the list. In case you didn’t know, the label “slider” comes from their habit of sliding off wooden logs or rocks. It’s the common trait you will find in any slider turtle. The rest of the name (yellow-bellied) is self-explanatory.

Scientific NameTrachemys scripta
SizeUp to 13 inches (adult)
Lifespan30-40 years
Difficulty Levelmedium
SpecialtyEasily available anywhere

 Yellow-bellied sliders are great if you want a children-friendly pet. They need less attention from their owners. Moreover, they are omnivores who eventually switch to a vegetarian diet in the later stages of life. Just make sure to buy an adult yellow-bellied slider for beginners.

Juveniles can be tough, considering they also need enough protein in their diet. You can keep an adult turtle by just offering pond plants like anacharis, water hyacinths, etc.

Another reason why I recommend this particular turtle species is its availability. It’s the most readily available turtle in any pet shop. That means there are hundreds of other yellow-bellied slider owners around you. It will help you get all the tips and suggestions from experts.

Remember to attach a basking platform to your turtle tank. These yellow sliders are avid swimmers. So, you will need a large tank with enough water to dive deep.

Keep the water temperature within 72 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The basking platform should have a temperature of 95 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. You can use store-bought UV-B enclosures to provide the sunlight effect in the tank.

Other than these small but crucial details, the turtle is pretty easy to handle.

5. Western Painted Turtle

Western Painted turtles are not the only sub-species available in the painted turtle category. You will also find midland, southern & eastern painted turtles. All of them have similar temperaments and care guides.

They just have different appearances.

For example, the western-painted turtle is the only turtle species to have a red plastron. The other three subspecies have a brown plastron.

Scientific NameChrysemys picta
SizeUp to 10 inches (adult)
Lifespan20-40 years
Difficulty LevelMedium
TemperamentCalm & docile
SpecialtyRed Plastron

 Apart from the fact that western-painted turtles are so unique, they are also easy to handle. You must have done it wrong if you ever get bitten by a painted turtle. The right way to carry a western-painted turtle is by using fingers.

If they are small, just put our fingers under the plastron. Never scratch or press the carapace. It will anger the turtle. Also, keep your fingers away from the turtle’s mouth. You will be safe if turtles can’t reach every part of their body.

As long as you are okay with abiding by the care guide, you will have a pleasant experience. But there’s one problem. Every painted turtle carries an extensive amount of salmonella.

So, I wouldn’t recommend keeping painted turtles if you have young children in the house. Salmonella infection is a life-threatening health hazard for kids. To create a safe turtle enclosure, you have to be dedicated enough to clean up regularly.

Painted turtles eat while their head is submerged in water. So, the water can’t be dirty at all. Painted turtles are already the top turtle species that get sick easily. There’s no way you can let them eat in a dirty water dish.You see, the challenges are many.

But, on the good side, painted turtles have a docile temperament. That’s why they are the second most available turtle in any pet shop nationwide.

5. Eastern Mud Turtle

Mud turtles are closely related to musk turtles. Don’t judge them while they are out of water in a pet store. Once these aquatic species get a large enough water tank, you will see the fun side. They are extremely interactive and are agile swimmers.

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I wouldn’t say they are perfectly safe for little kids. You have to have at least a little experience in handling turtles.

Because these mud turtles can bite hard, luckily, it’s not impossible to avoid such incidents. Just make sure not to touch the wrong body parts.

Scientific NameGenus Kinosternon
SizeUp to 5 inches (adult)
Lifespan20-40 years
Difficulty LevelEasy
TemperamentCalm & docile
Specialtyproduce musky odour as self-defence

One major advantage of eastern mud turtles is that they remain tiny even as adults. The female ones can get a little bigger. But the male one hardly ever crosses 5 inches in length. That’s a huge plus point for beginners. Small pet means less food, small tank size and ease of handling. It feels like you are holding a rock (that can bite!).

You must have an aquatic turtle set up and know how to maintain it. I know having a large water tank with filters, heaters, and other enclosures can be costly. But it’s non-negotiable, considering mud turtles can’t live without water.

The feeding routine is similar to any other turtle species. They don’t have any special requirements.

I think mud turtles are perfect pets for teenagers overall. Considering the hard responsibilities of changing the water regularly, please avoid giving them as presents to little kids (below 10).

common Musk Turtle lifespan

6. Common Musk Turtle

You must have heard of stinkpot turtles. They are officially known as common musk turtles. There are many things to know about them. But the most widely spread information about common musk turtles is that they are stinky.

It’s true, though. These turtles have a special ability to release yellow liquid from the inner side of the shell. The liquid holds a strong odour and helps the predators to turn away instantly.

Scientific NameSternotherus Odoratus
SizeUp to 5 inches (adult)
Lifespan30-40 years
Difficulty LevelMedium
Specialtyproduce musky odour as self-defence

This particular trait encourages many people to consider stinkpots as their next pet. But the opposite can happen, too. If you are not okay to deal with such a smell, I guess common musk turtles are not for you.

But on the good side, musk turtles don’t use this self-defence mechanism if they find you safe. For that, you have to handle them more frequently and show gentleness.

Sometimes, they won’t even bother with the smelly liquid. If you end up hurting them, they will just bite you. I know it sounds like the turtle hates interactions and is not interesting enough. But you have to learn to handle a turtle anyway, regardless of its sub-species.

Plus, the best part about having stinkpots is the size. A stinkpot turtle hardly ever crosses the 4-4.5 inches threshold.

That means you can have multiple stinkpots in a tank made for one yellow-bellied slider. And, small size is definitely something every beginner looks for. You can get away with smaller enclosures, less food and so on.

7. Diamondback Terrapins

Here’s our first terrapin of this list. Diamondback terrapins are widely popular as “easy” pets. But I think their small size has led people to believe that they are easy to handle. It’s true, but it’s also not 100% right.

There are certain aspects of taking care of a diamondback terrapin that require skill. For example, they do best in salt water.

It is recommended to add salinity to your tank water to replicate the vibe of natural brackish water (where it belongs). The pH of water should be slightly acidic (6.8) as well.

Scientific NameMalaclemys terrapin
SizeUp to 5 inches (adult)
Lifespan25-40 years
Difficulty Levelmedium
TemperamentSuper active & social
SpecialtyUnique polka dot pattern on skin

Even though every turtle in this list requires a sun-basking platform, it’s even more crucial for these terrapins. They are diurnal and require at least 10- 14 hours of light in their enclosure. I know it’s not always possible to let the terrapin roam around your front yard for so long. What you can do is attach some fluorescent light that can light up the entire tank.

Moreover, these tiny terrapins are somewhat active and adventurous. It’s interesting to observe them going by their day. It’s best if you can adopt multiple terrapins. That really helps erase the stress from these social creatures.

Despite their small size, they do need at least a 20-gallon tank during the juvenile stage. As they grow in size, I will not be surprised if you have to get an 80-to-90-gallon tank. And that’s only 1 terrapin. If you have a group of them, consider creating a turtle pond.

That way, you can let them have natural sunlight for 12-14 hours straight. Adding rock salt to the tank is a good way to make them feel more at home.

Before You Leave!

I hope you know which turtle you want to keep. But getting a turtle is just the first obstacle. There are many challenges to overcome after that. And, if that isn’t enough, you can get misled by other people. Sadly, there are many myths online about turtles.

If you want to avoid falling for that misinformation, check out my next article. Here, I have debunked the most common myths about pet turtles.

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.


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