Exotis ISSN 2398-2985


Chelonia nutrition

Contributor(s): Vetstream Ltd, Yvette Rowntree

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  • Chelonians can be broadly divided into herbivores (many of the tortoises, green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), several freshwater turtles), omnivores (box turtles and others) and carnivores (snapping turtles, soft shells, and others).
  • Some species such as the green sea turtle are primarily carnivorous while occupying the pelagic life stage in the sargassum rafts as juveniles. They leave the pelagic habitats and enter benthic foraging areas at a size of 20-35 cm (7.9-13.8 in) carapace length depending on the location. At this time, they shift to an herbivorous diet consisting of various sea grasses and algae.
  • Many freshwater turtles demonstrate similar feeding strategies as they mature.
  • Understanding the natural history and feeding behavior Chelonia senses/communication is critical to maintaining captive specimens and critical to providing a nutritionally complete diet.
  • A combination of commercially available prepared diets, vitamin and mineral supplementation, live prey items, natural forage, and high-quality fruits and vegetables may be utilized depending on the species.
  • Presentation of food can be just as important as the types of food being fed.
  • Feeding time may be the primary source of enrichment for the chelonian, especially if housed indoors.
  • There are a variety of ways to use food as enrichment to encourage natural foraging and feeding behaviors, eg:
    • Placing food items in an ice block or other destructible item for aquatic species.
    • Securing vegetables in a PVC pipe to encourage bottom feeding in aquatic herbivores.
    • Feeding live prey where appropriate.
    • Providing grass and non-toxic forage to encourage grazing in herbivorous chelonians.
Print off the Owner Factsheets on Feeding your terrapin and/or Feeding your tortoise to give to your clients.

Aquatic chelonia

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Terrestrial chelonia

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Further Reading


Refereed papers

Other sources of information

  • Rivera S (2017) Chelonians. In: Exotic Animal Medicine for the Veterinary Technician. 3rd edn. Eds: Ballard B & Cheek R. Wiley-Blackwell. pp 183-196.
  • Mohan-Gibbons H & Raiti P (2010) Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins. In: Behavior of Exotis Pets. Ed: Tynes V V. Wiley-Blackwell. pp 33-43.
  • The Tortoise Table. A comprehensive list of edible plants. Website: www.thetortoisetable.org.uk. Last accessed 9th May 2018.


  • American Association of Zoo Keepers. Useful resource for enrichment ideas. Website: www.aazk.org.

Reproduced with permission from Bonnie Ballard & Ryan Cheek: Exotic Animal Medicine for the Veterinary Technician © 2017 and Valerie V Tynes: Behavior of Exotic Pets © 2010, published by John Wiley & Sons.