African Helmeted Turtle: Ultimate Guide

There are so many different breeds and species when it comes to turtles, making it hard to find the right one for you. It can also be challenging to differentiate between the breeds and leave you feeling overwhelmed. 

Which turtle do you choose? And how do you care for it correctly? The questions plague you late at night and leave you unsure of where to turn.

Well, no more! We have said enough is enough and are here to offer you ultimate guides to the different turtle species. Not only will you be able to identify your turtles, but properly care for them too! Be sure to check out our other guides to help you find the turtle that is right for you. 

Today we are looking at the African Helmeted Turtle, so keep reading for all you need to know about this smiley guy!

Male vs. Female

Their large and thick tails can identify male African Helmeted turtles. They don’t tend to be larger, but the tail is usually a giveaway as to the sex of the turtle. The females will have a shorter tail and a broader carapace that can be used to identify them.

There is little evidence that one sex lives longer than the other or suffers from any illnesses. As with other turtles, it’s the female that lays the eggs and produces the hatchlings. 


This medium-sized turtle can reach between 7 and 12 inches in length. You will notice them thanks to their smooth shell that is black-brown, and the tops of their limbs tend to be greyish with a yellow underside. 

It’s their face people usually use to identify them, as their noses are small and pig-like. They also have large mouths that give the impression they are always smiling and happy. 

Like others in the Pelomdusa family, African Helmeted turtles do not have a lower shell that pulls shut to protect their legs and heads. What they do have is thick muscular necks. They can even use their neck as an extra limb to right themselves if they fall onto their backs! The neck can also tuck in and turn sideways if they feel threatened. 

As a Pet

These turtles can be kept fairly easily as pets but will require more maintenance than other species. You will need to provide them with a glass tank with plenty of space to grow in. anything with a width of 900-1200mm will be ideal. You will want the turtle tank to have a minimum height of 300mm. You can have a ramp and dock, too, allowing your turtle to roman and bask. 

The heating of the water and air needs to be regulated too; you can do this with heaters and thermometers. You will also need a good quality filter, as the tank can get messy with these water heaters! Decorate it accordingly, too, with plenty of land and plants that will mimic their natural habitat. Pebbles or coated gravel should also be placed on the ground of the tank too. 

While these make excellent pets, African Helmeted turtles can be aggressive and should not be kept with other species of small creatures to avoid a bloodbath in your tank!


Typically African Helmeted turtles will live for up to sixteen years. You can expect it to be slightly less when they live in the wild due to predators and needing to source their food continually. We see lifespans of around sixteen years when these turtles are kept in captivity. 

Some turtles in captivity have reached a lifespan of 32 years! This doesn’t appear to be the norm, although experts seem to disagree about their lifespan. Regardless, we see them live longer in captivity than in the wild. 


Unlike other turtles in the Pelmodusa family, African Helmeted turtles do not have a lower shell that pulls shut to protect their heat and front legs. Their long and strong necks also set them apart from other turtles in their family. 

They tend to be more aggressive too and independent. These turtles can right themselves if they fall over and defend themselves when needed. As these turtles don’t get along with other breeds, they are best left alone or with their kind. 

That said, in a community, they have adapted to attacking large prey when needed. 

Breeding Season

Instead of having a breeding season, these turtles mate all year round! Typically, these turtles will nest once a year, and the female will lay eggs from the late spring to earthly summer. 

Breeding tends to happen naturally between male and female turtles in captivity, providing their tank is in good condition, but you will need space for the eggs once the female is ready to lay them!


Female turtles will need access to a nesting box for their eggs. It should be large enough for her to turn around and deep enough to dig into. Use a soil mix that’s wet enough to clump together. The eggs should then be kept in an incubator at 84 degrees Fahrenheit. 

It’s best to incubate them in sealed boxes on a moisture-rich substrate, which traps humidity around the eggs. The eggs should hatch after 60 days or so. Once the first eggs hatch, the babies will encourage the rest to hatch. 

Growth Rate

The growth rate of these turtles varies depending on their age. As new hatchlings, these turtles will grow quite quickly. Provided you feed them regularly and maintain their tank, you should encounter no issues, and the turtles should grow quickly.

Their growth rate will slow as they get older, and it can take them a few years to reach maturity and finish growing. After a year or so, you might not notice any changes in their size from one week or month to the next, but these turtles can still grow slowly. 

Life Cycle 

The life cycle of an African Helmeted turtle is similar to other turtles. They will hit maturity in a few years and be ready for breeding then, as discussed earlier. You can expect a single clutch of 13 or more eggs to be laid in each season. Sometimes we can see up to 42 eggs, but these are few and far between. Generally, we see clutches with 16 eggs or fewer. 

Once the eggs are laid and hatched, the babies will grow and reach maturity, completing the same cycle until they reach the end of their lifespan. Providing they are in good health, and the tank is well-maintained, you should have no issues seeing your turtles reach 30!


African Helmeted turtles are a popular breed kept as pets and are still found throughout Africa. Although we have no set number for the population, there is no cause for concern about the species. They have not been listed as endangered or at risk. 

They are usually in swamp areas, marshes, rain pools, and lakes. They are also near flowing rivers too. Unless their natural habitat is destroyed by humans or climate change, we don’t anticipate harm coming to their population. 


Like other turtles, we have some omnivores on our hands. Any food in their habitat they will eat, fish, earthworms, snails, plants, and insects! These turtles mainly eat underwater and are known to tackle larger prey like Doves and other birds.

When kept as pets, dried food like shrimp and meat protein can be given to the turtles. You will want to give younger turtles more protein to help them grow. You can also feed them brown crickets, chicks, mice, salmon, black crickets, and Dubai cockroaches. 

Also include vegetables like lettuce and spinach or other collard greens. They will also need turtle pudding and gelatin. You can purchase these easily and provide convenient options for owners. 

Remember, your turtle is fed in water, so your tank will get messy! You can feed them in a separate container or ensure you have a sturdy tank filter. 

Feed adult turtles every other day and younglings twice a day. If your turtle doesn’t eat, live prey like crickets and mice should be introduced, their predatory drive will kick in, and they will be munching away in no time!


African helmeted turtles are susceptible to predators as eggs or young hatchlings. Birds, snakes, and mammals are known to feed on eggs or younglings. In captivity, this is less of an issue unless there are other animals nearby. 

However, when in their natural habitat, the African Helmeted turtle is the predator. These turtles will aggressively hunt small aquatic creatures and even team together to take down larger prey, such as birds! It’s not a turtle you want to mess with in the wild. 

Roaming Range

These turtles like lots of room to roam! Ensure they have plenty of water to bask in and land space as well. There’s no set limit on how much space they need, so check our tank specifications for more advice. 

With these turtles, though, we think the more room, the better! If you are housing more than one turtle, allow even more room for them to roam without butting heads with each other. 


While they are susceptible to respiratory problems like other turtles, there aren’t many diseases that will affect only the African Helmeted turtle. It is worth being aware of diseases that can affect turtles in general and be aware of the signs to look out for (your vet can advise on this). 

You do need to watch out for Vitamin D deficiencies in these turtles. They need lots of light so they can synthesize Vitamin D and Vitamin D3 in particular. If your turtle becomes deficient in this, they will struggle to metabolize calcium, leaving them struggling with bone growth. 

Any concerns about this should be raised with a vet. Ensure you have strong bulbs or intense UV tubes that can avoid this. 

Eye Color

Like other turtles, they can have yellow or brown colored eyes with black pupils. The pupils aren’t too large, meaning you can see lots of the color! You can also see African Helmeted turtles with greenish eyes, but yellow or yellow-brown is the most common. 


African Helmeted turtles don’t always hibernate. Unless the winter is very cold, you can expect to see your turtle roaming or shuffling about all year round. Usually, when kept in captivity, they will hibernate during very cold weather, such as harsh winters. 

They aestivate during unusually hot and dry weather. It’s more common to see this behavior in their natural habitat, as parts of Ghana and the Cape of Africa will get far hotter than your enclosure. Regularly maintained temperatures in captivity will prevent this too, but with climate change posing more of a threat, we can expect their behavior to adapt and change. 

Can they swim?

Yes, they can swim! These turtles spend a lot of time in the water and enjoy swimming; when kept, the tank will need to be deep enough to allow for swimming and diving. Ensure your tank has the appropriate depth, at least 300mm, to provide this space. 


These turtles aren’t too tricky to care for. They need an area with both land and water, so invest in a large, good quality tank. You can keep babies and younglings in aquariums with floating land, but adults should be in large turtle tubs. 

As we mentioned earlier, you will need a good filter, and it’s best to go external to give your turtles more room to roam and swim. They also don’t enjoy fast-flowing currents, so set your filter to low settings. Change the water regularly, too, as these messy eaters can leave your tank worse for wear. 

Air and water temperature is key to caring for these too. You want a 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit basking site and an 80-83 Fahrenheit water temperature. You can maintain these with heaters and thermometers, ideally external, to keep as much room in the tank for your turtle. 

Lighting will help keep these temperatures, with many owners preferring mercury bulbs to achieve this. If you have any concerns, a vet or reptile expert can offer more advice. 

These turtles can be aggressive and are known to hunt other sea creatures, so it’s best to keep them on their own. They can also be aggressive to other turtles, especially if they are smaller than them, so keep them apart if possible! 


The price varies depending on the seller, but generally, these are quite cheap to purchase! You will need to consider the tank, filter, and food cost when deciding if you can afford these turtles. 

Do your research beforehand, too, to ensure you purchase your turtle from a reputable seller. They should provide you with all the care information that you need for your new pet. 

Fun Facts 

  • These turtles have long muscular necks they use to correct themselves if they are stuck on their backs
  • These turtles are shy and like hiding in rocks and plants 
  • African Helmeted turtles always look like they are smiling 

Final Word

And just like that, we have come to the end of our African Helmeted turtle journey today! As you can see, these turtles are fascinating creatures and will make a welcome addition to your home. Provided there aren’t other species of turtles for them to fight in the tank, they are sure to thrive. 

Remember to provide the right environment for them, and your turtles are sure to be happy and healthy!