Siebenrockiella crassicollis / Black templeturtle - Care

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Specification Description
Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Suborder: Cryptodira
Family: Geoemydidae
Subfamily: Geoemydinae
Scientific name: Siebenrockiella grassicollis
Dutch name: Zwarte dikkopschildpad
English name: Black temple turtle
Distribution: Asia
Reproduction: oviparous / egglaying
Status: Near threatened
Cites: B / II

Siebenrockiella crassicollis, (Gray, 1831)

The Siebenrockiella crassicollis is a mid-sized aquatic turtle that is ideal for those who have experience with for instance the commonly kept American sliders and are looking for a more tropical species and want to be a part of maintaining a captive insurance colony of a vulnerable turtle species. They are relatively easy to take care for and have a nice behavior. One of the many common names for this species is the ‘Black temple turtle’ as it is seen as a reincarnated spirit or soul by many Buddhist and therefor kept in ponds in and near Buddhist temples. Other common names are the black mud turtle, black mud terrapin, smiling terrapin and wide neck terrapin.

The genus Siebenrockiella used to be a monotypic genus until in 2005 the Palawan forest turtle was included (Siebenrockiella leytensis) that was previously described as the Heosemys leytensis. This was based on distribution and morphological basis but there is still some discussion if the S. leytensis fits into the Siebenrockiella genus . Making it a possibility the Siebenrockiella leytensis will be in its own monotypic genus. Suggested by Vetter in 2006 although not yet accepted as Panayaenemys leytensis. Leaving again the Siebenrockiella grassicollis to be the only one in the genus.


Status:  Like so many other Southeast turtle species also the Siebenrockiella crassicollis is classified as vulnerable by the IUCN. Because of the giant demand of the Asian, specifically Chinese food market and fraudulent medicine market giant numbers are being harvested from the wild. Also a part of the population is still harvested for the pet trade. Despite the fact they are protected in Thailand and there is a general ban on the harvesting of wild turtles and tortoises in Myanmar, Vietnam and Singapore. They are listed by Cites under the Appendix II (B). Meaning that if you purchase a animal there always have to be paperwork that states the origin of the animal and person you bought it from. Luckily these animals do well in captivity and also breed so there is no need for any wild animals in the American and European ‘pet’ trade.

As the S. leytensis is endemic to just a small part of the Philippines. This species is even more fragile than that of the S. crassicollis. For many years the Palawan forest turtle was expected to be extinct until it was rediscovered by some enthusiast in a restaurant in 2001. After it became known these turtles where still living in the wild, prices and demand increased massively. In 2015 one of the biggest confiscations of freshwater turtles was done including more than 4000(!) Palawan forest turtles.


General appearance:  The black mud turtle is a mid-sized turtle, on average they get 17cm till 20cm with some bigger individuals sighted. They general carapax color is a very dark almost black color. The overall body color is a dark-grey. The legs are strong and feet are webbed, adjusted to their aquatic habits. They have 5 toes on each feet, although the outer toe on the back feet is small and without a nail. The head is flat on the top, round and stout with a very strong jaw used to crush their food. They get their name ‘Smiling terrapin’ because of the raised backsides of the upper jaw, making it look like they are smiling. The neck is thick and strong and is as broad as the head itself. The carapax is smooth. The hind marginals are serrated. The vertebral shows a lightly raised ridge along the entire length of the carapax. The plastron is ether completely black, or has a pale brown base color with a black pattern radiating over it. The underside of the marginals, where they meet the plastron matches the ether black or pale brown base color of the plastron.

Mature males can be differentiated from the females on several morphological characters which is also called ‘sexual dimorph’. They have a completely black head whilst adult females and immature animals have a light, pale brown coloration on their bottom and upper jaw, above and around their eyes and just behind the tympanum. Males have a more profound serration of the hind marginal scutes and have an all-around deeper black coloration of the body and plastron. Male also tend to have a bit more pointed, or narrow head. The plastron of the mature males shows a clear concavity. Also the tail is obviously longer and thicker with the cloaca positioned further outside the shell. The tail of females is a lot shorter, more slim and pointier and the cloaca is based close to the anal scutes. During mating season the male will develop 2 white pores on the chin.

Hybrids:  We have found one documentation of a Siebenrockiella crassicollis X Cuora amboinensis (ssp) hybrid. Normally hybrids are manmade, or because there is no access to a mate from the same species.


General behavior:  This is a relatively shy turtle species that spends most of their time in the water. They rarely come out the water to bask. They are relatively good swimmers but prefer to walk and forage on the muddy bottoms of their habitat. They like to hide between submersed roots and in the mud. They are mostly diurnal but can also be very crepuscular.

In captivity they lose their timid behavior and get used to their keeper. Although basking is rare, when they do they will still often flee into the water as soon as they are disturbed. Initial reaction to activity will be to retreat but soon after curiosity will prevail. They are active foragers and will react to the person feeding them. So they will soon come out of their hiding to see what is going on.


Natural range and habitat:  Although under threat by habitat loss and overcollection from the wild populations the Siebenrockiella crassicollis still has a relatively large distribution. This species can be found in the lowland (sub)tropical parts of south-west Laos and east Thailand along the Mekong river delta (not in the river itself). Spreading true almost whole Cambodia and the most southern part of Vietnam, Central and southern Thailand and along the southern border between Thailand and Myanmar, Malaysia, the eastern half of Sumatra, northern parts of java and central to south and south-west Borneo.

They prefer well vegetated, shallow ponds, swamps and pools with slow moving till stagnate waters. Most of their time is spend on the muddy bottom. The ponds and streams they live in often receive little light because of the thick canopy that surrounds it. This is probably one of the reasons they do not bask a lot and have the deep black color, to absorb the most available heat/sunlight as possible, of course this black color also helps with camouflage in the dark muddy pools.

Other turtle species they share their habitat with are the Cuora amboinensis kamaroma in Thailand, parts of Laos and Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. Cuora amboinensis couro in their Sumatran distribution area and in Borneo with the Cuora amboinensis. In East Thailand, bordering Laos and in Cambodia they can encounter Malayemys subtrijuga and with Malayemys macrocephala in central till southern Thailand. Heosemys grandis ‘Southern form’ shares their habitat true almost their complete mainland distribution and is together with the Heosemys annandali the species most kept together with the Siebenrockiella grassicollis in the Buddhist temples.


Captive requirements:  As these turtles prefer slow moving shallow ponds and swamps and spend most of their time on the bottom a high water level is not needed in comparison to for instance the active softshell turtles (like Pelodiscus sp). Especially hatchlings and juveniles hide between all the vegetation along the shallow borders of a pond or in (temporary pools) so best is to keep these in an aquarium that is on average 10x as long, 5x as wide and 1x till 1.5x their shell length deep. Make sure there are plenty of possibilities for the young to reach the surface. This can be done with stacked flat stones, floating cork and submersed branches.

Adult animals can be kept in deeper water and are better swimmers but always provide them with several options to easily rest in more shallow parts and that there are objects for them to use to climb to the surface. A single adult Siebenrockiella needs a minimum of 100 liter water. We have good success with keeping trios (1 male, 2 females) in ponds that are 120x80x40 with a 25cm water level. We prefer enclosures with solid walls over aquariums with transparent windows for turtles and tortoises. For young a simple floating log or plateau is sufficient to rest outside the water and when needed bask. For adults a land area is needed that is about or bigger as 60x30x20cm filled with sand, cocopeat soil and leaves. Here they can bask and if needed lay eggs. We normally make sure that the lamp creating a hotspot is hanging partially over the land area and partially over a shallow water area bordering the land area. So the animals can easily thermoregulate without coming out of the comfort of the water. Underneath this hotspot on land the temperature is 32C and the air temperature is on average 26/27C with a similar water temperature (25C). At night the temperatures can drop till 20C but they like stable temperatures. These animals have a big natural range and adjust well to different conditions but long term (water) temperatures below 20C often cause respiratory problems. As these animals spend most of their time below the water surface and only sporadically bask they do not have a high UV requirement. So lighting with a fluorescent tube that emits light similar to daylight, including UV is sufficient. Provide them with a light cycle that is on average 13/11.

When you choose for a sterile setup but still want something to cover the bottom a well-fitting ceramic tile floor can be used. This looks better then plain glass and is easy to clean with a brush. Siebenrockiella naturally like to dig true the mud looking for all kinds of food so a sandy substrate will fit these needs better. Use a substrate cleaner regularly to prevent any build-up of bacteria in the substrate caused by stagnating waste like left over food and faeces. Best is to use an external canister filter for filtration and do regular water changes. Try to make sure there is some movement in the water but avoid any strong currents true the whole aquarium or pond.

Siebenrockiella crassicollis can be kept in groups and are also very tolerant towards other turtle species as long as there is enough space and visual barriers in case an animal wants to separate itself. Siebenrockiella are calm turtles, so do only combine them with turtles with a similar disposition, combining with active, dominant sliders etc. will cause a lot of stress to the Siebenrockiella. Rival males can get into territorial fights during the mating season. So I this happens often it is best to separate them. Also make sure females are not constantly harassed by active males which can cause stress and non-willing females will also bite the male. If you see a male with wounds on especially the front legs and paws remove it to prevent more damage. As these are the limbs they get bitten in most often while trying to court the female. Separate these males and only introduce them in the breeding season.


Diet:  Siebenrockiella crassicollis are omnivorous turtles. Hatchlings and juveniles are more carnivorous then the adults who will eat a bigger percentage of vegetables and greens. Best is to feed young Siebenrockiella almost daily and adults on average 3 times a week as much as they can eat.

As a staple diet Zoomed turtles pellets, fish, worms, tomato, carrots, apple and some greens can be offered. Other animal matter that can be fed are shrimps, molluscs and crayfish, freshwater fish (not live wildcaught) mealworms, dubias and other cockroaches, grasshoppers and snails wish have a high calcium content. Not all Siebenrockiella will accept all greens and fruits but items that are often accepted are banana, papaya, mango, andive, pakchoi, carrot, bell peppers and waterplants like duckweed and waterhyacint. Always remove non eaten foods to help keep your water clean.


Breeding and captive propagation:  In the wild breeding season starts in February/March and eggs will be laid from April till June. But in captivity males will be interested in mating almost all year long and we have observed most activity from March till Juli. Eggs are lagged between May and August. Females will be most accepting after temperatures are raised. On average Siebenrockiella crassicollis is sexually mature after five till six years. The courtship includes bobbing their head, staying in front of the female and sometimes bite her in the neck, shell and tail to get her attention. When the courtship is successful and the female is willing she will raise her back so the male can penetrate her. He will use his front legs to hold on to the females shell while wrapping his tail under the female. Best is to have just one male in with several females to prevent an additional male will pick on the other while mating and the pressure of the sexually active male is divided between the females.

Females can lay eggs up to four times a year but clutches often contain no more than two eggs, more often just one. The rather large eggs (sometimes 6x3cm) will hatch after 64 till 90 days at a temperature of 31.5C till 26C. Hatchlings measure 45 till 50mm. We would like to add that fertility is highly effected by stress for the female, many keepers also get no more than 2 clutches a year. We keep the males with females all year long and do not make changes. Also with this turtle species, the sex is not temperature determined as with most other species. So the temperature does not have a direct effect on the sex outcome of the hatchlings but the combination of a X and Y chromosome. Therefor we prefer to hatch them a bit cooler (27C) as this seems to reduce/eliminate changes of scute abnormalities.

Make sure you don’t place the freshly hatched babies directly in an aquarium with a high waterlevel. The hatching takes up a lot of their energy and it is not uncommon for hatchlings to stay at least a few hours till days around their nesting area or need to walk to the shallow waters they will first live in. So best is to use a simple container with a very wet papertowl or cloth. So they can absorb the last of the yolk and gain energy to move and swim. After that you can set them up in a container that has a waterlevel no higher than their shell is long. With a lot of sphagnum moss so they can easily climb to the surface. Three till four days after hatching the young will start feeding. You can feed them with live bloodworms, tubifex and chopped up worms.

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