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How Can I Tell the Age of an African Sideneck Turtle?

African Sideneck turtles make great pets because they’re resilient and adapt easily to their environments. Because of this, captive African Sidenecks can live up to fifty years when given the proper care. But since they need different care at different stages of life, it’s beneficial to determine your turtle’s age. 

Knowing its age can help you estimate how big it will grow and how long it will live. It will also help you care for it properly. 

So if you own an African Sideneck turtle, or want one, you’ll want to know how to determine its age.

The only definite way to know your turtle’s age is to know its hatch date. However, there are some methods that estimate age.

Read more to find out the different methods to estimate your African Sideneck’s age, and how to give it the best care at each stage of life.

Physical characteristics and growth patterns

Physical characteristics

African Sidenecks are medium-sized turtles that can grow up to 11 inches. Females will grow larger than males. 

Their carapace, or top shell, is usually plain and brown. They have a brown or olive-green color on their heads. 

Like other turtles, their carapace is covered with scutes. Scutes are like scales, or plates, that make up the turtle’s shell. Unlike most turtles, their plastron, or bottom shell, has a hinge that helps them protect themselves in the wild. 

Since they are semi-aquatic turtles, they have partially-webbed feet with sharp nails. This helps them swim and rip food apart when eating. 

Additionally, an African Sideneck can’t pull its entire neck into its shell when it withdraws. Instead, it curves its neck to the side when threatened.

Growth patterns and life stages

Hatchlings

In the wild, hatchlings cannot protect themselves because their shells are too soft and fragile. So, when they hatch, they want to hide. They’ll spend most of their time hiding but will emerge to eat.

It will take several days for their shells to begin to harden, but when given proper care, they grow rapidly

Juveniles

At this stage, their shells will be hard.  Juveniles continue to gain weight and grow in size. They’ll become more active, and won’t hide as much.

Juveniles still eat mostly protein to support rapid growth. They’ll eat less but need more variety.

Adults

As mentioned, adult African Sidenecks can grow up to 11 inches. Some females can reach 12 inches.

Adults only eat once every two to three days. They also prefer proteins but thrive on a varied, omnivorous diet. 

As they grow, they will shed scutes. Most turtles shed single scutes, but African Sidenecks can shed almost the entire carapace at once. 

Additionally, adult turtles will reach sexual maturity. African Sidenecks usually reach sexual maturity between 2 to 5 years old, though sexual maturity is determined more by the size of your turtle than its age.

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Methods for determining age

Comparing size, shape, and condition

To start, compare your turtle with an adult of the same species. Since females get bigger than males, compare turtles of the same sex.

With this method, use size similarities and differences to estimate age. If the two turtles are similar in size and shape, it’s likely they’re both adults. 

Additionally, compare the condition of the shells. The appearance of scars, marks, or dents may indicate one turtle has lived longer.

Counting growth rings on scutes

Scutes on a turtle shell show growth similar to how a tree’s rings show a tree’s growth. Each scute has a set of rings, differing in thickness and color, that indicate times of growth. 

The rings grow thicker when there’s an abundance of food and grow thinner when there’s a lack of food.  Since food amounts can correlate with warmer or colder months, one thick ring next to a thin ring can account for roughly a single year. 

To use this method, first count the rings in a single scute. 

Next, divide the number of rings in the scute by two. Since a pair of rings represents a year, you’ll need to divide them to get an approximate age.

For example, if there are 10 rings in one scute, then you can determine that your turtle is about five years old.  

Skeletochronology

Scientists use a method called skeletochronology to examine the growth lines on bones.

Similar to the rings on a scute, the lines on a bone indicate times of growth. This method helps scientists estimate age more accurately. 

This procedure is only possible after a turtle’s death. So, though it gives accurate information for research purposes, it won’t help determine the age of your living pet.

Difficulties in determining the age 

It’s hard to determine the age of turtles if you don’t know the hatch date. 

When turtles in captivity are given the appropriate care and the best diet, they’ll grow faster than wild turtles. But, pet turtles with inadequate care will grow slower. This can make it harder to use these methods for an accurate age estimate. 

Additionally, damage and scars on shells can result from improper care or trauma, not just age. This can make it difficult to approximate age using comparisons.

It is even more difficult to determine the age of wild turtles. Since turtles live so long and age slowly, it can be hard for scientists to make comparisons. 

Also, scutes grow less consistently in the wild since food is not constantly available like in captivity.

Caring for different life stages

Hatchlings

Hatchlings have many needs and require consistent care to thrive. 

You’ll need to feed them two to three times a day. Feeding them ZooMed Hatchling Formula will help them grow and stay healthy because it contains high levels of protein. 

You’ll also need to house them in a tub with shallow water that stays between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. To keep the hatchlings healthy, you should change the water every three days.

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Additionally, provide fake plants for hiding. Baby turtles are shy, and will get stressed if there aren’t enough places to hide. 

They also need UVB light to help them metabolize food and keep their shells strong. Their shells also benefit from Vitamin D3 supplements.

Additionally, only keep hatchlings with other hatchlings. It’s dangerous to keep them with older turtles.

Juveniles

Your juvenile turtle will need more space and water. Getting a filter at this time will help you keep the water clean. Continue to keep the water warm.

Juveniles need a tank of at least  40 gallons, but getting a larger enclosure will mean you won’t need to upgrade as it grows. 

They should also eat a high-protein diet to support rapid growth, but you can offer them more variety. 

Though they’re more active than hatchlings, they still need places to hide and relax. But juveniles will need a larger basking area to get dry and warm.

Adults

If you haven’t already, you’ll need to expand your enclosure to at least a 75-gallon tank. You’ll need a strong filtration system to keep the water clean.

Like juveniles, adults need a basking area to dry out and get warm. You should keep basking temperatures around 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Adults still enjoy hiding, so provide multiple places to hide. This will reduce stress.

Adults need a more varied diet. Though they prefer proteins, like shrimp and pinkies, they also need vegetables like leafy greens. 

They can easily become obese, so don’t overfeed them. Also, make sure to remove all uneaten food from the tank.

Because your turtle will shed, it’s important to keep the shell clean. Clean water is critical for keeping the shell clean of bacteria or fungi.

Elderly turtles

You may notice some physical changes in older turtles. For example, the color of the scutes can lighten or fade. 

They may also become less active. And they have higher chances of illnesses like dehydration, infections, or cancer. 

To help keep an older turtle healthy, keep it on a feeding schedule and observe it often. This will help you catch any eating or behavior changes that could indicate illness.

Don’t handle it too often, and keep its environment clean. This will reduce stress and illness.

Also,  make it easier for your turtle to get in and out of the water. It should still be able to get to the basking area for the light and heat it needs. 

Finally, get regular vet checkups. And see your vet immediately if your turtle shows signs of illness.

Conclusion

Knowing your turtle’s age can help you care for your turtle in a number of ways.

It helps you estimate how large it may grow or how long it could live. Most importantly, it allows you to provide the best care possible for each stage of life.

The more you understand about your turtle, the better you’ll be able to meet its needs and keep it thriving for many years.