Map Turtles


Map Turtles

5 Common map turtles, or Northern map turtles as they are more correctly called. Pictyre by D. Gordon E. Robertson

5 Common map turtles, or Northern map turtles as they are more correctly called. Picture by D. Gordon E. Robertson

Map turtles are freshwater turtles belonging to the genus Graptemys in the family Emydidae. They are native to North America, where they are found throughout the eastern half of the USA and northward into southern Canada. In addition to being called map turtles, they are also known as sawback turtles.

They are endemic to the continent of North American, meaning this is the only place in the world where they are found in the wild.

Map Turtle Species

There are 13 recognized species of map turtle.

Graptemys barbouri Carr & Marchland, 1942 Barbour’s map turtle
Graptemys caglei Haynes & McKown, 1974 Cagle’s map turtle
Graptemys ernsti Lovich & McCoy, 1992 Escambia map turtle
Graptemys flavimaculata Cagle, 1954 Yellow-blotched map turtle, also known as Yellow-blotched sawback
Graptemys geographica Le Sueur, 1817 Northern map turtle, formerly known as Common map turtle
Graptemys gibbonsi Lovich & McCoy, 1992 Pascagoula map turtle
Graptemys nigrinoda Cagle, 1954 Black-knobbed map turtle
Graptemys oculifera Baur, 1890 Ringed map turtle
Graptemys ouachitensis Cagle, 1953 Ouachita map turtle
Graptemys pearlensis Ennen, Lovich, Kreiser, Selman, Qualls, 2010 Pearl River map turtle
Graptemys pseudogeographica Gray, 1831 False map turtle
    • Graptemys pseudogeographica kohnii
Baur, 1890 Mississippi map turtle
    • Graptemys pseudogeographica pseudogeographica
Gray, 1831 False map turtle
Graptemys pulchra Baur,1893 Alabama map turtle
Graptemys versa Stejneger, 1925 Texas map turtle

What Does a Map Turtle Look Like?

map turtle plastron

Plastron on adult Northern map turtle. picture by D. Gordon E. Robertson

Map turtles get their name from their appearance. Their carapace (the top/dome portion of their shell) has designs on it that resembles those seen on some maps. Specifically, it has been noted that the lines on their shells look like waterways on a map. These lines are often a yellow or orange color, with darker colors in between them such as greens and browns. The lines on the map turtles shell can fade some as they age.

In addition to the lines on their shell, map turtles also have thicker lines on their face and limbs. The lines are often a bright yellow, and for many specimens; they are even more noticeable than the “map lines” on their shell.

All of these bright colors and unique designs make map turtles fairly exotic looking despite the relative ease in acquiring one as a pet. While not often regarded as the most ideal pet turtle, they are certainly one of the more handsome looking genera of pet turtle.

They are relatively small when compared to other aquatic fresh water turtles, such as the Trachemys and Pseudemys genera. The females tend to be much larger than the males, with females reaching a max length of about 7 to 10 inches and the males only reaching about 3 to 7 inches. The females are often dominant to the males, and can often be the more aggressive gender when multiple map turtles are put into the same enclosure.

Another difference between the males and females is that the males have much longer claws on their front legs. These are used by the males in displays of courtship, when trying to attract a female.

Some of the species (such as the Barbour’s map turtle) have a few juts coming out of the top of their shell, resembling a line of dorsal fins. Some also have spike-like juts coming out around the base of their carapace. This helps add to their interesting appearance that makes them desirable to some potential pet owners.

Map Turtle Lifespan

The average life expectancy for map turtles is 15-20 years.

Hatchling Barbours map turtle

Hatchling Barbours map turtle, Graptemys barbouri,

Where do Map Turtles Live?

As mentioned earlier, map turtles are endemic to North America.

They are aquatic turtles, and while they can spend time on land; most of their time is spent in the water. Map turtles do not live in salt water; they only live in freshwater environment such as ponds and rivers. They tend to prefer river systems with flowing water. Ideal map turtle environments contain lots of underwater plant matter that they can eat, as well as rocks and logs that they can rest on when heating themselves in the sunlight. Commonly referred to as basking.

Between November and April, map turtles will become dormant and spend most of their time in the water. They like to tuck themselves away during this time, hiding in places such as sunken logs or mud at the bottom of the water.

Map Turtles as Pets?

mapturtlesSeveral species of map turtle used to be very popular in the pet trade and bred in captivity in the USA, but their popularity decreased after the enactment of the Four-Inch Regulation in 1975. Prior to the new regulation, thousands of map turtles were bred and hatched out in captivity for the U.S pet trade. You can read more about the Four-Inch Regulation further down of the page.

The most popular ones were the Sabine map turtle (Graptemys ouachitensis) and the False map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica) – including the subspecies Mississippi map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica kohni).

These species are the most popular pet map turtles today as well, but they are much more rare in the pet trade than before. Other examples of map turtles that are bred in captivity in the United States are Cagle’s map turtle (Graptemys caglei), Texas Map turtle (Graptemys versa) and the Black-knobbed map turtle (Graptemys nigrinoda). The more endagered species, are more rare seen and can only occasionally be found in the pet trade. The rarer species of map turtles are more comon in the European pet trade. This is due to the fact that there are more breeders breeding the species in captivity in Europe.

There are several drawbacks to map turtles as pets, such as being a challenge to care for in captivity when compared to some other turtles such as red eared sliders.

That being said, the common species are legal to own in most cases ( allways check your local laws before buying a turtle) and their colorful designs make them desirable to some potential pet owners. They make a great addition to an outdoor garden that has a large pond area, and also look rather exotic in an indoor tank.

While reptiles in general do not need close attention and affection like dogs or cats, they have been less domesticated and therefor have very specific health needs that must be met when kept in captivity.

Are There any Legality issues to Map Turtles that I should know of?

There are several species of map turtles that are endagered and these species are in some areas illegal to keep without special permits. Since some map turtles are so small, the four-inch law can make it harder to find a good pet specimen.

The four-inch law was passed by the FDA in the United States in 1975 as a measure against the spread of salmonellosis. Turtles under the size of four inches were reportedly spreading salmonellosis to children when children placed these small turtles into their mouth or touched the turtles and then put their fingers in their mouths. The four-inch law makes it illegal to sell turtles under 4 inches in a commercial setting.

Males of some map turtle species do not exceed four inches in length even in adulthood limiting their availability in the pet trade.

It is however important to remember that the four-inch law only apply to pet stores and other public commercial operations.  The law states: Except as otherwise provided in this section, viable turtle eggs and live turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches shall not be sold, held for sale, or offered for any other type of commercial or public distribution.”Sec. 1240.62 (b). The law also makes an exception for “The sale, holding for sale, and distribution of live turtles and viable turtle eggs not in connection with a business.“, Sec. 1240.62 (d)(2).  It is still legal for private hobby breeders to sell map turtles smaller than 4 inches in lenght as long it is truely a hobby and not a business.   This means that it still possible to buy the smaller species and smaller specimens of the larger species directly from a breeder. This also have the added benefit of knowing that you get your turtles from a dedicated breeder and turtle lover and not from some faceless turtlefarm. Turtles from private breeders can often be in better health than pet store turtles.

Internet have made buying map turtles directly from private breeders a lot easier and it is today often possible to find small turtles without ever having to leave your home.

Pearl River Map Turtle.  This species was only described in 2010.

Pearl River Map Turtle. This species was only described in 2010.

There has been some concern in recent years about map turtles in the wild, and the loss of suitable map turtle habitats.

It might be illegal to take a map turtle from the wild in your area. Make sure to research what the regulations are in your area before considering catching a wild turtle to keep as a pet.

Taking turtles from the wild is not recommended regardless of the legaility in your are. Turtles taken from the wild are more likely to carry diseases that can be transferred to other turtles they share the enclosure with, or even humans. Turtles that were born in the wild and put into captivity also don’t tend to live as long as turtles that were originally born in captivity and stayed there.

What Should I Feed my Map Turtle?

Like many genera of turtle, Graptemys are omnivorous. This term means they eat both plant and animal matter.

Something to note about these aquatic turtles is that they only feed in water. They have greater mobility in the water and overall adapted to underwater environments to the extent that hunting food is far easier underwater than it is on land.


Picture by Derzsi Elekes Andor

The type of food you give them will vary depending on which gender of map turtle you have. This is because the females are much larger than the males, and so their superior jaws can consume larger prey. The females can consume prey as large as clams and snails, whereas males have to be fed things like tiny crustaceans and aquatic insects.

Fish can be hard for them to catch, but they will sometime eat pieces off of dead fish. At pet stores, you can usually find items like frozen shrimp or meal worms, which can be thawed and then given to your map turtle. Do not feed your map turtles live meal worms. Live meal worms rich in nutrients but there is a small risk that the worms might harm your turtle.


Frozen shrimp from the grocery store. Shrimp without shells are safer to use.

A tip is to buy your frozen shrimp in the grocery store rather than the pet store. The shrimps are a lot cheaper in the grocery store and as long as you get brine free (unsalted) shrimps they will be suitable to use as food for your map turtles. I do this for my fish, turtles and other animals.

For plant matter, they enjoy dark leafy greens. Place the greens on their basking areas above the water, as well as have them floating in the water itself. If you have an outdoor enclosure, you can plant some aquatic plants and let them grow naturally. Research what kind of aquatic plants grow around the native area of your specific species of map turtle. There are other benefits to having aquatic plants in your map turtle’s outdoor enclosure, which will be covered later.

Typically, hatchling & young map turtles that are still growing will have a more carnivorous diet than their adult counterparts. This is because young turtles are still growing, and need the extra protein in their diet.

Where should I keep my Map Turtle?

You will need to have a large aquarium tank or a large outdoor pond if you want to keep a map turtle as a pet. They need lots or room to swim around with plenty of places to hide underwater.

Remember that they are freshwater animals, not saltwater.

Basking Northern Map turtle. Picture by D. Gordon E. Robertson

Basking Northern Map turtle. Picture by D. Gordon E. Robertson

You will also need areas on top of their body of water that they can climb onto, such as logs or mounds made of rock or dirt. Map turtles like to come out of the water sometimes and bask in the sun. Reptiles cannot regulate their own body heat so access to an external heat source is crucial. If your map turtle is being kept in a tank, you can have a heat lamp set up above their basking areas.

If you keep your map turtle outside, a heat lamp map can still be used and may even be necessary depending on where you live. If you live in an area where it gets too cold at certain points of the year, an outdoor pond may not be the best choice for your map turtle.

A good rule of thumb to determine if an outdoor pond is an option is to research the species of map turtle you own, and see if any live in the wild in your area. If they do live in the wild in your area, then an outdoor pond may have temperatures that are naturally hospitable to them. It is however important to remember that a small pond will get colder in the winter and hotter in the summer than a larger body of water so your pond is not necessarily a good map turtle habitat even if they live in your area.

In addition to the logs or rocks on the water’s surface that they can climb on, the map turtles will also want some accessories to go below the water’s surface. When map turtles go underwater, they sometimes like to seek out things like logs, thick plants, and mud to hide in. You should have lots of cozy little hiding places that your map turtle can use. Make sure that they can no get stuck in the hiding places. If they get stuck they might drown.

For tanks, it is recommended that you use a suitable sized filter to help keep their water clean. If you have them outdoors, keeping their water fresh can be a bit more difficult, and but using the right size pond filter can really help. It is, for this reason, recommended that you do not skimp on size of their pond. Not only do map turtles need lots of space to feel free and healthy, but smaller bodies of water are also much faster to get dirty and health-hazardous. A larger body of water will have an easier time staying fresh. A larger body of water will also, as earlier mentioned, maintain its temperature better.

Having aquatic plants planted into your outdoor pond can help oxygenate the water and keep the environment healthy for your pets. Good examples include water lettuce and duckweed.

How large your tank or pond should be depends on how many map turtles you want to keep and what species of map turtles you want to keep. They are not particularly aggressive animals and are social enough that you can keep them together. However, there can be exceptions to this if there is not enough space and food to go around.

What Else Should I know about Map Turtle care?

Graptemys oculifera, Ringed Map Turtle

Ringed Map Turtle, Graptemys oculifera

The lifespan of map turtles is not very long compared to other turtles. Many turtle species can live over a hundred years. American box turtles will as an example live 75 years or more. Map turtles tend to only live up to twenty-five years in the wild, and their life expectancy in captivity is lower. So while they make beautiful pets, they do not live long by the standards of a reptile.

Map turtles are overall not hospitable to being put into a strange environment. They are one of the harder turtle genera to care for as pets, and may not be a good choice for first time turtle owners. The difficulty in caring for them has kept them from being overly popular in the pet trade, despite their unique and beautiful shell designs.

Know that aquatic turtles do not like to be held or cuddled. Reptiles in general are not affectionate animals, but it is best that you do not pick up your map turtle at all unless you have to. If you do handle your map turtle, wash your hands thoroughly afterward. Aquatic turtles can sometimes spread things like salmonella. This is not too big of a danger so long as you use basic care techniques (such as washing your hands after handling) and a little common sense. Nut it is still a risk you should be aware of.

Having too little exposure to direct sunlight can negatively impact your map turtle’s health. Sunlight deprivation can cause problems with their shell and even fungal infections. If your map turtle is in an outdoor pond, make sure some of its basking areas have access to direct sunlight at any point during the day. If you keep your map turtle in an indoor tank, make sure you have a high quality lamp that simulates the sun’s rays. You may have to take your turtle outside occasionally if the lamp doesn’t seem to be doing enough.