The Map Turtle: A Complete Care Guide

The map turtle is a popular turtle type to keep as a pet, showcasing interesting behaviours and a really cool reptilian aesthetic.Map Turtle

Keeping a map turtle happy and healthy involves a lot of effort, so some research is needed before you can get started on this new and exciting pet adventure.

To help you, we have gathered all the information you need to know about caring for this cute little species including details on feeding, habitat and handling.

Read on to find out all about keeping map turtles as pets:


An Introduction To The Map Turtle

The map turtle comes from a larger group of 14 different species and five of those are broad headed. All map turtles are part of a genus called Graptemys.

Our focus today is on the Mississippi map turtle which is sometimes labelled a ‘false map turtle’ which still falls under the category of map turtle. Overall, the care of map turtles is specific to map turtles as a group so you can apply the same rules to different types of map turtles in a general sense.

When it comes to the look of a map turtle, it is quite varied. It’s carapace is keeled and serrated, it’s frontal limbs are broad and its feet at the back flattened and specially designed for dynamic movement in the water. Many map turtle’s carapaces are plain blacks, greys and browns, but some have orange, tan, green, yellow or white accents across the shell. They also have a stripy head, neck, legs and tail.

The map turtle’s native habitat is the Mississippi River and across other wet habitats within North America. It is a really interesting turtle type because it has such unique and specific evolutionary features and adaptations. This makes the map turtle very specific in the care it needs to receive to fully thrive in captivity. For that reason, if you’re a beginner turtle owner or you’re buying for a child, this probably isn’t the turtle for you.


Choosing A Map Turtle

It is always better to buy a map turtle that was born in captivity because they are already adapted to captive conditions. This makes it much easier to keep them happy, but most importantly, healthy because they will be much less likely to have diseases and parasites than wild animals.

When selecting your turtle it is important to ensure that the animal is as healthy as possible, which is more likely with a recommended breeder. A good map turtle breeder will:

  • Be open and honest about the turtle’s history
  • Check that you are a suitable owner for the turtle
  • Offer support and advice long after you have purchased the turtle
  • Offer certification of vet checks and other health checks
  • Be able to show you more than the one turtle in their care
  • Offer live on arrival or suitable dead on arrival procedures if sending the animal through the post

It is important that if you purchase the turtle from a previous owner or from a rescue facility that you are certain the animal is in great condition. A healthy turtle should be:Graptemys geographica

  • Clear eyed
  • Heavy when being picked up
  • Reactive when picked up
  • Have no fresh shell damage
  • Have no injuries on it’s tail, head or limbs
  • Show no sagging between the shell and the body
  • Show no signs of discharge from the nose, eyes or mouth

If you’re unsure, look elsewhere. Not only do you not want to purchase an unhealthy turtle but you don’t want to encourage unscrupulous breeders or sellers to get away with abusing turtle’s and making money from it.


Mississippi Map Turtle Behaviour

Mississippi map turtles live to about 15-25 years in great conditions and in the wild they are at home in the water. Even when they aren’t in the water, they generally won’t stray far from it.

In their natural habitat they can be found in groups where the females are the ones ‘in charge’ because they are usually bigger than the males. For this reason, it is never recommended to have more females than males as disputes can occur.

When you own a map turtle the chances are you won’t be able to handle it too much. They are naturally shy, even when raised in captivity and they feel safest in the water, not in your hands. If you do need to pick them up you can pick small turtles up by the sides of the shell, and larger pets by the front and back of the shell. Do keep their mouth well away from your fingers though as they do have a nasty bite.


Mississippi Map Turtle Housing



Just like other aquatic turtles, the Mississippi map turtle loves an enclosure that is filled with water. You’ll need to ensure that you have a good filter in place to keep that water nice and clear unless you opt for an outdoor pond enclosure. Turtles are pretty enthusiastic eaters and will leave a mess so investing in a really strong filter is important.

A way to drain the water easily is also handy because you will need to give the whole enclosure a good clean about four times a year.

The water you do use has to be treated before being put in the enclosure as it contains chemicals that will make your turtle sick. The treatment removes those harmful chemicals.

Interestingly, because these turtles are often found in rivers you will also need some sort of current running through the water for it to feel as natural as possible. This current should be paired with heated water which can be warmed with a water heater. The water needs to be about 75 degrees Fahrenheit and about 1w of power warms about a litre of water, so in larger enclosures two heaters will be needed.

Tank/ Enclosure Size

When it comes to choosing the size of a tank, males and females require different sizes.

Females grow to about 6-10 inches long will need at least a 125 gallon tank of around 72 inches, but as males are smaller at an average of 6-10 inches long, they will need a minimum of a 75 gallon tank (90 gallons is better) that is about four foot at least.

As the animals require a lot of water the minimum height needs to allow the turtle to be submerged from feet to head if it stands feet up from the bottom. A minimum of 300mm is usually a good guide for adult map turtles.

Of course, the more space the better and most turtles do best with a large enclosure with plenty of space for exploring and living out natural behaviours. Many people may start with a small setup for a younger turtle and expand as the turtle grows but as the turtle will not be harmed by living in a larger enclosure than it needs, it is better to start with a full sized enclosure.


The ambient tank temperature for the map turtle needs to be about 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

The map turtle will need to be able to bask in its enclosure. This ensures that they can get dry, warm and take in the UVB which is vital to various health functions they need to do to be in great shape.

You will need the basking area to be around 80 degrees Fahrenheit which can be provided by a heat lamp. The manufacturer will list the distance from the lamp to the surface needed to heat it up adequately. You can test that temperature periodically to ensure it is as warm as your turtle needs.

The basking area itself has to be big enough for the turtle to be able to fully fit on it, and be able to turn. It should also include a ramp for easy access to and from the water. The platform itself could be a smooth wooden platform, driftwood or other interesting surfaces. As long as the items are treated and are turtle safe you can be quite creative with this aspect of the tank.

Some people like to use floating platforms in addition to the basking area so that the turtle has multiple options to gain access to dry land if they want it.


You can add a lot of lighting to a turtle tank to replicate daylight, but it is the heating bulb (above) and the UVB absolutely essential for your turtle to be healthy. The UVB is needed so that your turtle gets vitamin D which enables them to process calcium in the body which is essential for bone growth and health.

You can use a special UVB lamp or tube for the UVB needed. Alternatively there are combo heat and UVB lighting lamps that sit in a ceramic lamp holder and they tend to need to be about 11-12 inches away from the basking surface to be effective. The manufacturer should provide instructions to let you know the distance requirements of the bulb. Whichever option you choose, the UVB has to be on 12 hours of the day and the bulb has to be replaced every 6 months. You can use a timer for this to ensure the turtle has properly replicated day to night conditions.


For a turtle to be happy the tank has to contain enrichment. Artificial plants are a great example of this as they are easily maintained, can provide colour and interest to the tank and give the turtle a place to hide. A mixture of submerged and floating decorations will ensure the turtle can move and hide as they wish, providing that all important security for them.

Using fresh plants in combination with artificial plants is a good idea to create a diverse and layered environment. As long as the turtle has lots of yummy veggies in their diet they shouldn’t spend too much time noshing their enclosure plants.

It is also a good idea to use clean substrate like large smooth pebbles to line the bottom of the enclosure. This imitates the natural debris and stones the turtle would interact with in their natural habitat.


What To Feed Your Mississippi Map Turtle

There are plenty of foods that the map turtle loves to eat with turtle pellets making up about 25% of their diet, and then protein and veggies making up the rest.

Common Map Turtle

Dead food-grade chicks and mice are great treats for the turtle. Crickets, locusts, shrimp, salmon and cockroaches are also great sources of protein. Putting some live insects in the enclosure can provide a great source of stimulation and interest for your turtle too. Do make sure that the insects are bred for this purpose though so you can be sure there is no disease present that could spread to your turtle. It is also important to avoid any processed foods.

When it comes to veggies – dandelion leaves and romaine lettuce are great choices. The key is to mix and match what you’re giving every day so that the turtle gets a good mix of nutrients.


You’re One Step Closer To Caring For A Map Turtle

The guide above is a great essential introduction to caring for a Mississippi map turtle. They do have specific needs but it is worth putting the effort in to make sure that they thrive. These little guys might not be the best pets for cuddling, but map turtles they are fantastic to observe, especially if they truly are happy in the enclosure you give them.

Be sure to check out My Turtle Shop Here for the essentials you need to help you set up.

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