Cuora amboinensis

If you want a box turtle which will be easily cared for in a terrestrial environment and comfortable at "room temperature," there are some from which to choose. North American box turtles are sometimes kept that way, as are some of the Asian box turtles. One creature that is absent from that list, however, is Cuora amboinensis. Unfortunately, when a customer buys a Malayan box turtle from a pet store, incorrect information often comes along with the purchase.

In order to provide appropriate care for any animal, it's best to take your cues from the animal's natural environment. In view of that, we must examine the unique nature of the Malayan Box Turtle:

1. It is the most highly aquatic of all species of box turtles in the world.
2. It ranges entirely within the lowland, equatorial rainforests of Southeast Asia.

We know that these things are true from a number of professional citations (see Ernst & Barbour for a complete list of references) and zillions of eye-witness reports from the citizens of Southeast Asia. We would be wise to create an environment for the "Water box turtle" based on these facts.

Set-up: The Malayan box turtle requires an aquarium that provides a water area and a land area in approximately a 50:50 ratio. A "20-gal. long" is a minimum size for one juvenile individual. The "long" format allows for more surface area, and you don't need the greater depth of the standard 20-gal tank. (A much larger pond with more land would be preferred for a pair, as aggression can be a problem with two or more.) Make sure to provide enough water for swimming, at least 6" deep. Place a reptile light fixture (such as Reptisun) on the tank, and provide some other type of basking and warming lamp. Use of substrate is optional. Pea gravel can be very attractive and natural looking. Gravel can also aid in keeping the water clean, if an undergravel filter is used. Additional rocks, wood and plants make nice additions to an aquarium. (For more information See a simple, small set-up)

Heat and humidity: A reliable water heater is required. (An "Ebo-Jager" model has worked well for me, while another brand failed to maintain a reliable temperature.) Keep the water temperature between 79 and 84 degrees F. (26.1 - 29 C.) Cover the tank enough to maintain a high humidity level (in the tropical range, 75-90%) and an air temperature of at least 78 degrees F, (25.6 C.) The area under the warming light should be about 82 to 90 degrees F. (28 - 32.3C) during the day. (Turn lights off at night, but maintain the water temperature.)

Feeding: In diet, at least, the Malayan is somewhat like other box turtles--omnivorous. However, aquatic plants provide the main food source for C. amboinensis in the wild. Provide a variety of greens 'n veggies, some fruits, mushrooms and an occasional waxworm or cricket. "Gut loading," or feeding nutritional plant matter to the worms or crickets before offering them to the turtle, improves the quality of this food source. Use a good supplement, formulated for turtles, to assure proper nutrition. (Supplements are not needed daily if the animal is feeding well and is provided with an excellent variety.) Malayans prefer to feed in the water, if the water is warm enough. Aquatic plants and greens can be provided in the pond or aquarium at all times. Feeding in a sink or plastic tub away from the aquarium will make cleaning easier. Healthy, well-nourished turtles do not require large feedings on a daily basis. One or two substantial feedings per week should keep your turtle happy and active without risking overfeeding. It is a good idea to keep cuttlebone, or some other high calcium food, available all the time. (Please note: turtles should not be fed spinach, rhubarb or parsley as these are high in oxalic acids, which can cause calcium deficiency.) There's more diet information at The diet dilemma. Also see my set-up page for more on feeding. A list of good foods for turtles can be found here: What Should I Feed My Turtle?

Hibernation: In the wild, the Malayan box turtle is never found in sub-tropical, temperate or alpine areas. It never hibernates.

Breeding: Views on "wild captured" verses "captive bred" animals, and tips on how to breed these turtles.

Troubleshooting: Cuora amboinensis -is a hardy species. It can endure poor husbandry, but why should it have to? If you are unable to provide proper care, find someone who can. You can then get one of the other pets that may fit your lifestyle better. Here are some signs that the turtle needs a change in its care.

how to care for your Asian box turtle

Inactivity: This little creature is highly curious and active by nature. If yours spends a lot of time sitting in the corner or "burrowing," it is not comfortable. The most likely cause is insufficient attention to temperature and humidity.

Avoidance of water: An aquatic animal will not avoid water if it is healthy and has a suitable supply of water available. Most likely, the water is too cold (below 78 degrees F.) The land area of the cage must also be warm and humid so that the animal does not cool rapidly when it comes out of the water.

Infection: Any sign of swelling around the eyes or ears, "bubbling" from the nose, or soft areas of the shell should be treated by a competent reptile veterinarian. The vivarium water and land areas must be kept very clean to avoid infections. Malayans kept under conditions that are too dry appear to be particularly susceptible to respiratory infections.

"Flaking" shell: Wild captured Malayans are often poorly cared for in transit and "storage" before they arrive at the pet store. If they have not had access to warm water and high humidity, the outer layer of the carapacial scutes can begin to peel up. When the animal is returned to good living conditions, this may correct itself. However, while the flaking exists, harmful pathogens can find their way under the damaged laminae. In that case "shell rot" can result. If caught early, home treatment is usually successful.

Refusal to eat: This species tends to eat eagerly, even with less than optimum care. If your C. amboinensis -is not eating, it may be very ill. The first thing to try would be aquatic plants. If that fails, seek veterinary help. Some sick "ambys" will eat only live foods. They may be craving the extra protein. But an unwillingness to eat aquatic plants would be evidence of illness. You may need to explain this to your vet since veterinarians cannot be expected to know the habits of every species.

I hope this helps you understand a very special tropical pet--the most aquatic box turtle on the planet.

Check these sources for more information.

Back to "One Turtle's Tale: The Malayan Box Turtle's Story"

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