Besides being utterly adorable, baby turtles are energetic, instinctual water lovers. They are found on all continents and often serve as great pets as long as they are given room to grow. They come in all shapes and sizes, eat just about anything that fits in their mouths, and learn to survive on their own from the day they are born.
There are over 270 living species of turtles including aquatic and semi-aquatic varieties. Common pet types are Russian Tortoises, Spur-Thighed Tortoises, Red-Eared Sliders and Painted Turtles. Turtles vary in size and shape, ranging from 3 inches (like the South African Speckled Cape Padloper Tortoise) to 8 feet (like the Leatherback Sea Turtle). All turtles are characterized by a special bony plate covering their bodies and a retractable neck.
Though most live in or near water, all turtles are reptiles and must breathe air to survive. Adult females often return to the nesting sites of their birth to lay eggs beneath the sand or dirt. After incubation, eggs hatch and baby turtles emerge with a tiny tooth that assists in cracking the shell and that falls out shortly after hatching. There is no known species in which the mother cares for the young; rather, the infants are driven to water by pure instinct. If young turtles survive their first two years of life, they have a much higher probability of maturing to breeding age.
Incubating eggs and newly hatched turtles can be placed on wet paper towels to keep their skin moist and provide water. Baby turtles can be kept in aquariums in up to 4 inches of water with plenty of above-water basking spots and access to sunlight. It is important to change the water weekly and feed turtles in a separate container as excess food particles and waste increase the likelihood of disease. Juveniles should be fed daily. Turtles are omnivores and enjoy aquatic and land plants, insects, small rodents, greens and fruits; ideal foods change throughout their life cycle. Pet baby turtles are happy with “turtle pellets” sold in local pet stores and enjoy mashed earthworms as a special treat. Turtles can live for decades if cared for properly.
In recent years, turtles have been deemed poor pets for children because of the possibility of contracting Salmonella from casual contact. The U.S. government banned the sale of turtles under 4 inches in length in order to decrease this threat. Consumers should also beware of the illegal sale of invasive or endangered species.
Many conservation projects collect newly laid eggs of endangered turtles in order to incubate them away from natural predators and harsh weather conditions. In the absence of threat, these turtles have a better chance at surviving their first few years of life and reaching adulthood.