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Care Sheet: European Pond Turtle

Emys orbicularis (Linnaeus, 1758)


Garden pond for turtles Garden pond for turtles

Vivarium set-up

Garden pond

The construction of suitable garden ponds for turtles has been extensively described elsewhere, such that a repetition here would appear unnecessary.

One additional consideration worth mentioning, however, is the importance of maintaining a natural temperature gradient between shallow and deeper parts of the pond even in the presence of a filter. The inlet tube for the filter should not lie in the lower half of the pond, and the water should be returned to the pond via a gentle steady flow. Sufficient oxygenation can just as well be achieved by distributing the outflow of the filter over a large stone or rock. Taking in water from the deepest point of the pond and returning it via a turbulent outpour results in a constant remixing of the different temperature zones, thus cooling down the shallower areas in an unnatural and undesirable manner. Turtles should be able to choose the water temperature appropriate to their current phase of activity.


Emys eats goldfish

Please note, none of the following food items should be fed exclusively. Only a varied diet is a natural diet and will keep your turtles healthy in the long run, as it allows deficiencies in one type of food to be compensated by essential components found in other foods. A relatively strict weekly feeding scheme is the easiest way of achieving a balanced diet.

TIP >>> With a little patience and care, it is possible to accustom European pond turtles to being placed in a separate water-filled container outside of the main tank for feeding. This allows for a detailed observation of individual feeding habits, as well as preventing weaker Emys from being pushed away from the food. In addition, this method is beneficial for the water quality in the tank, since any remains (esp. of fish) that are left in the container can easily be discarded.


The seasonal rhythm of high temperatures in summer, temperate transition periods and hibernation in winter allows for coordination of metabolism and hormone cycle in European pond turtles. It is hence essential both for successful breeding and for the health of the individual animal, and must be maintained in the artificial environment of the aquarium. For true hibernation, it is critical to mimic the natural temperature found at the bottom of the frozen lake, i.e. 4°C, since Emys orbicularis are still active at temperatures as low at 10°C. Hibernation in the garden pond itself, however, can be risky, since conditions in smaller ponds tend to differ greatly from those found in the natural environment. Specifically, the steep walls of garden ponds can cause European pond turtles that are stiff with cold to drown, as they cannot crawl along the bottom and shallow slopes of the pond to the surface for oxygen. In addition, excessiv sediment in the relatively small garden ponds quickly leads to suboxic or even anoxic conditions, thus preventing the extra-pulmonary oxygen uptake via the gut which usually occurs under the ice. Ideally, Emys orbicularis should be left in the pond until they go into hibernation themselves. They can then be transferred to a tub containing cold pond water in November, where they should stay until March (although juveniles may be transferred to an aquarium earlier). The condition of the turtles should be monitored occasionally. If there are problems, hibernation should be interrupted and the turtle should be taken care of indoors.


Even under ideal conditions, European pond turtles will occasionally succumb to diseases, or else may be in poor health upon initial purchase. Signs of sickness include unusual behaviour during basking (e.g. immobility when startled), slanted swimming, difficulties with diving, apathy, or loss of appetite. Any European pond turtle exhibiting these signs must be seen immediately by a vet with specific experience in the treatment of chelonians or at least reptiles in general, as it is almost certainly critically ill. Unfortunately, there are not many specialists available. A few lists can be found on the web (see link page), but remember that these are only produced by other reptile owners and have generally not been verified. Your safest bet are the veterinary hospitals found at some universities, as well as veterinarians specializing in exotic animals.

Seeing a ‘normal' vet, on the other hand, is generally not very helpful and at best results in a useless “vitamin injection”. In addition, most pet medications are designed for mammals and are not necessarily suitable for reptiles hence the vet must be knowledgeable in this field. Before buying a turtle, it is thus important to consider that the closest suitable vet may be hundreds of miles away and accordingly expensive. The initial cost of the turtle is only a small fraction of what is yet to come!

Turtle with shell necrosis Turtle with shell necrosis
Left: shell necrosis on the carapax of an adult Emys orbicularis; right: healed necrosis a few years later

TIP >>> Specialists publish in their area of expertise!

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