Turtles have evolved 230 million years ago, during the age of the dinosaurs, and they’re some of the most intriguing creatures on Earth. But unlike many of their relatives, their diet can be quite varied and surprisingly broad.
Turtles are omnivorous, which means they eat a wide variety of foods. For the most part, the diet of a turtle depends on its species, size, and habitat. In the wild, turtles eat a combination of plant and animal matter, and this is often what biologists recommend that pet turtles eat as well.
Still, while turtle’s dietary preferences range from vegetation and fish to insects and small animals, there can be a great deal of variation between different species.
While all turtles have a varied diet with plenty of options, each one can have different food habits, making the diet singular to each turtle. There are more than 300 species of turtles and each one has singular characteristics influencing their diet.
There are three main types of turtles to consider when looking at their food options.
- Freshwater turtles are the most abundant ones, with 350 different types located in swamps, rivers, ponds, and lakes in Asia, America, Africa and Europe. They only leave the water to sunbathe and feed on insects, also eating plants and small organisms they find on the water. Among the types of freshwater turtles, the ones most usually found are red-ear slider, the yellow-bellied slider, the Cumberland slider, the pig-nosed turtle, the spotted turtle and the razor-backed musk turtle.
- Sea turtles are also quite common and can be found in all the warm and template waters of the world. In this species, only females go ashore; this on the occasion of nesting, that is, they leave the water, lay their eggs and return immediately to the sea. In this way, sea turtles are considered to spend most of their time underwater. This type of turtle can retract neither the head nor its legs inside the shell. They also have fins instead of claws, an adaptation made due to their lifestyle. Sea turtles can measure up to 243 cm long and weigh around 680 kg. They are omnivorous, so they feed on aquatic plants, primarily algae.
- Finally, land turtles, commonly referred to as tortoises (not turtles), are the ones to move the slowest. They are capable of living in any continent except Antarctica, being Africa the one to hold the largest number of turtles. They spend all their life on land, only going to the water when they want to drink some or bathe.
Tortoises can reach 119 cm and weigh up to 299 kg. They are herbivorous reptiles, so they structure their diet from herbs, fruits and green leafy vegetables, grasses and flowers. Some of the most common types are Texas tortoise, the leopard tortoise, the desert tortoise and the Russian tortoise.
“Turtles are old lineages, the first turtle species appeared around 150 million years ago. For example, one of the oldest species, and still living, of turtles is the leatherback sea turtle that appeared around 100 million years ago. If you consider that the dinosaurs were extinct around 60 million years ago, leatherback sea turtles were already swimming in the world’s oceans and survived the dinosaur’s extinction,” Sibelle Torres Vilaça, a researcher at Ferrara University in Italy, told ZME.
What do turtles eat in general?
There are, of course, differences from species to species — but most are content with these options:
- Vegetables: they all go well, from lettuce to peas, from cucumbers to tomatoes, since they contain vitamins and mineral salts. The important thing is to wash them carefully to remove any trace of chemicals.
- Fruit: common shell and ornate shell turtles love strawberries and currants, but all land turtles love apples, bananas, pears and figs. However, it is advisable to avoid giving them citrus because they cause diarrhea.
- Fish: live or dead, chopped or whole (but raw), depending on the type of turtle, although they should be reserved only for aquatic species. In nature, they eat the whole fish, with scales, bones and guts, so it would be good to respect their customs.
- Mollusks: mussels and clams, sea snails and terrestrials are liked by different species of turtles (pieces of squid are also an option). The shells contain a lot of calcium, which is very important for the skeleton of the turtles.
- Insects and worms: choices here are wide and varied. The aquatic larvae of some insects are a real delicacy for turtles, but the baits used by fishermen are also very good. Regarding worms, they can be considered the equivalent of our food supplements, because they are rich in essential nutrients. The best is earthworms.
- Meat: The preferred snacks for turtles are lean red meat and beef liver, raw and cut into strips or chopped.
The best food for pet turtles
The food given to a pet turtle will also depend on the specific species. Many of the options listed above for turtles, in general, can perfectly apply to a pet turtle, ideally combining more than one so to have a balanced diet. But there are other options also available:
- Food prepared for turtles: Today the main companies that produce food for aquarium fish also manufacture food for turtles. In general, they are shaped like dehydrated flakes that float on the surface of the water. They can be found at the vet or at supermarkets.
- Food for dogs and cats: There are a few turtles that show appreciation of prepared foods sold for dogs and cats. Indeed, these preparations contain all the substances necessary for healthy growth. Especially appreciated are cat cookies.
The best thing to do is to ask a local veterinarian what type of food your pet turtle would enjoy best.
How often to feed pet turtles
There are a lot of different opinions on this issue. For pet turtles, juveniles (up to one year old) should be fed once a day, young adults every two days, and older turtles should be fed every three days if there are edible plants in the tank so that they can have a snack in the intermediate days.
However, this is far from a settled matter.
Others believe that it is okay to feed turtles of any age every day, but for that, you have to feed them smaller portions, while others consider that they should be fed as much as they can eat in 15 or 20 minutes. Those ways of doing it are equally good. All breeders, however, agree that the overfeeding of a turtle is one of the worst things that can happen to the animal — it poses severe health risks and should never be done.
In fact, one of the things that you will have to learn if you have a pet turtle is how to ignore their food requests. This may sound cruel, but turtles are very intelligent animals that quickly learn to beg for food every time they see a person passing by near their tank. But overeating can cause all kinds of health problems for them.
It is often said that turtles are “opportunistic feeders” in nature. That means that when they see food, they eat it if they are hungry or not. This is because in nature, turtles do not know when they are going to get their next meal, so they take advantage of when food is available to prevent the occurrence of a long period of time without eating again, due to a natural lack of food.
“The important thing about pet turtles is to give them a balanced diet, depending on what they eat in the wild. For example, some species might prefer fish, or worms as their main food source, or even accept fruits and green vegetables,” Torres Vilaça told ZME.
What do tortoises eat?
The feeding of tortoises should be pretty varied. A balanced diet for an adult land turtle can be one that is: 40% meat, 40% vegetables and 20% fruit. It is also important that they eat foods with calcium (not dairy products) and phosphorus. These two elements are part of its shell, so they are essential to have a healthy and strong turtle.
Land turtles have a slower metabolism. For this reason, it is recommended if you have a pet turtle to distribute the food in several doses during the day. Both the food and the water with which they are fed must always be at room temperature, neither cold nor hot.
What do seawater turtles eat?
Within the group of sea turtles, there are several species. Many of them, in their natural habitat, feed on jellyfish, sponges, and some other small soft and soft beings. However, there are some marine Galapagos that feed on crustaceans, as they have strong jaws that break their shell or shell.
But not all sea turtles are carnivorous. For example, the green turtle eats seaweed and helps keep coral reefs clean. So, it is an herbivorous seawater turtle.
What do freshwater turtles eat?
These types of turtles prefer a diet where living things abound as food. Tiny fish are the ones that most appreciate freshwater turtles. Similarly, crickets and crabs are also part of their diet.
If you have a freshwater turtle at home and wondering where you can find these foods, you should know that the little fish can be found in pet food stores. Anyway, if for some reason you cannot feed it with these insects and animals, as an alternative resource, you can buy fish to feed your turtle.
You should also include lean meats in your diet, fruits, and vegetables. All of them are perfectly suitable for feeding a freshwater turtle. For the pond where you have this type of turtle, it is advisable to have a separate space to eat. This is so since they dirty the water a lot where they spend most of their time.
The problem with plastic
As it happens with many animals, the amount of single-use plastic thrown into the ocean is threatening turtles. An international study led by the University of Queensland researchers showed more than half the world’s sea turtles have ingested plastic.
“Plastic is a huge and growing issue for sea turtles, as they interact with it during their whole lives. The mothers and hatchlings crawl through polluted beaches to nest and head to the ocean. They confuse plastic bags for jellyfish and can get caught in plastic-like six-pack rings,” said Brad Nahill, Co-Founder & President of SEE Turtles.
The more plastic a turtle consumes the greater the likelihood that it was killed by that plastic, according to research in Australia. Once a turtle had 14 plastic items in its gut, there was a 50% likelihood that it would cause death, the study showed.
Looking at specific species, a study at the University of Exeter found that green turtles are eating plastic that looks like their diet of seagrass. The researchers found plastic inside all of the 19 turtles examined, with one turtle that even had 183 pieces of plastic in the stomach.
Similar findings were reported on leatherback turtles, which ate plastic that looked like jellyfish, their main source of food
“Plastic ingestion can cause death by entanglement, blockage or perforation of the digestive tract, or sublethal effects, like exposure to chemicals and pathogens,” Torres Vilaça told ZME Science.