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What Do Turtles Eat? Meal Time Tips for Aquatic Reptiles

One of the first questions beginners ask me is “what do turtles eat?” After all, feeding a new turtle pet is an important part of ensuring it lives for decades to come. Turtles are some of the least complicated animals to feed because they eat a wide range of items. But this variety may be tricky to replicate at home.

What Do Turtles Eat

Some beginners expect to just offer a can of pellets like you might feed a fish. But as you will come to learn, turtles thrive on diversity! 

What Do Wild Turtles Eat?

Aquatic turtles are, for the most part, true omnivores. Omnivorous animals will eat both plant and animal matter. Humans are omnivores as well.

Turtles eat anything they catch and have a wide range of food sources to choose from in aquatic environments. Their menu includes animal sources like fish, crayfish, aquatic insect larvae, snails, slugs, worms, and other defenseless creatures.

Turtles also eat plant material when they can’t find protein-rich critters to consume. Floating plants like algae mats, Elodea, and lilies are favorites of theirs. Certain lilies also have tubers and seeds that turtles will eat if the season is right. 

In short, wild turtles are opportunistic feeders that will eat anything they have access to. This ability to eat anything is a major reason why turtles have survived for hundreds of millions of years. 

Specialist animals often die out when the environment changes too fast and their main source of food disappears. But turtles have the option to just switch to something else.

Do Turtles Eat Meat?

Most turtles will eat meat of all kinds. They will eat not just live prey but also carrion. Dead raccoons, ducks, fish, and other animals that wash up on the shore of a pond will attract turtles. They will pick through the skin, feeding on meat and organs.

Besides whole insects and fish you might offer your aquatic turtle pets small pieces of fresh meat. Chicken, fish, and shellfish are the best choices. Beef may be offered sometimes but is too fatty for turtles to eat often.

Do Turtles Eat Turtles?

For the most part, turtles prefer eating soft and slow moving animals. But other turtles are pretty slow moving themselves. Do turtles eat other turtles?

The answer is almost – but not always – no. One exception is the Snapping Turtle. These large North American aquatic turtles are apex predators in their habitat. Their large, powerful bite is strong enough to break not just the bones of their prey. But also the shells of smaller turtles like Sliders and Musk Turtles. 

A Snapping Turtle will prey on other turtles at times, ambushing them from underwater and killing them with a single bite. But they are so much slower that smaller turtles avoid them with ease.

Turtle eggs are also on the menu for any adult turtles that find them. Otherwise, the hard shells of turtles protect them from their larger relatives.

What Do Sea Turtles Eat?

Sea turtles live in a very different ecosystem from freshwater pet turtles. So their dietary habits are quite distinct. But like their freshwater cousins, sea turtles stick to sessile (non-moving) or slow moving prey since most aren’t fast swimmers.

Some, such as the Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) are herbivorous, feeding on algae and seagrass meadows. The Green Sea Turtle is an omnivore when young and switches to eating vegetables as it matures.

Most others are omnivorous, supplementing the grass and algae with anything from fish and crustaceans to stranger foods like sponges and jellyfish. 

The Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) eats nothing but jellyfish. Despite such a poor diet it is also the largest sea turtle and the heaviest reptile besides the largest of crocodiles. 

They are also some of the most threatened by plastic pollution. Wafting plastic bags look a lot like jellyfish and tend to get stuck in the toothy throats of sea turtles, choking them.

What Do Pet Turtles Eat?

Pet turtles, for the most part, are less picky than some of the specialized wild species out there. In fact, one reason why a particular species may be popular is because it isn’t so picky an eater. These include all of the most common aquatic turtles found in pet stores, including Red Eared Sliders, Painted Turtles, Box Turtles, and so on.

When preparing a turtle diet, remember that turtles eat meat and plants alike. Any food you prepare should be rich in both. Diversity is what’s important because turtles tend to suffer from vitamin deficiencies. 

You should add powdered vitamin supplements to balance out some of this loss if you don’t have access to seasonal vegetables or different kinds of meat. But there is no real substitute for a varied and balanced diet full of fresh ingredients.

Do Turtles Eat Bugs?

All turtles will eat bugs; in fact, bugs are one of the favored food sources of baby turtles. Be careful when choosing bugs because some are too fast for turtles to catch with ease. Crickets are not a good option unless you place them in the water. 

A turtle will be able to snatch them up as they paddle along the surface. But a cricket that makes it to land will be almost impossible for a turtle to eat.

Mealworms and hissing cockroaches are slower and easy for turtles of all ages to eat. Mealworm beetles, earthworms, snails, caterpillars, and slugs are also treats that turtles enjoy eating. 

If you find caterpillars and other herbivorous bugs it is a good idea to know which plant they are feeding from. Insects that feed on milkweed and other poisonous plants often pick up toxins from their meal that they use as defense. 

A caterpillar loaded with milkweed toxin will make a turtle sick or even kill it, if it is sensitive to the poison. Pet store feeder insects are much safer than wild caught bugs for another reason: parasites. 

Wild-caught bugs will pass on any parasite eggs and larvae to the animal that eats them, such as your pet turtle. In fact, being eaten by a predator is a part of the life cycle of many parasitic worms and single celled animals. Store-bought bugs are a much cleaner source of food for your turtle pets.

Are Turtles Herbivores?

Few pet turtles are full herbivores; they are omnivorous to varying degrees. Aquatic turtles get 25% to 75% of their calories from meat, depending on the species, habitat, and season. A 50% blend is perfect for almost any species.

That said, land tortoises are a different matter. They are pure herbivores and eat a mixture of grass, leaves, succulent plants, and fruit. Pet tortoises should never be given animal protein. They also can’t swim and get all of their water from the food that they eat. 

Prepared Options For a Turtle Diet

Prepared turtle pellets are another good addition to your pet turtle diet. When shopping for a formula, stick to blends that use whole ingredients like prawn, black soldier fly larvae, garlic, and fish. 

Any soybean, wheat, potato starch, and other fillers should not be listed first. Otherwise the blend is lacking the nutrient rich whole foods that turtles need for good health. I also only offer commercial turtle food every so often and not as the foundation. A good staple turtle diet should be based on fresh foods.

Freeze dried foods like krill and fish could also be reconstituted and fed to turtles. But fresh or thawed frozen food remains the best option for your pets.

Conclusion

The question “what do turtles eat” gets complex when we look at the many different kinds of turtles out there. Most turtles are omnivores – but some are specialists that feed on just one kind of animal or plant source. That said, few species in the trade are so picky. Most eat pellets, lettuce, fish, and bugs with equal gusto. 

More Frequently Asked Questions about What Do Turtles Eat

Feeding aquatic turtle pets is one of the easiest things about keeping them. Pet turtles will eat almost anything you offer. But maybe you are interested in learning more about their diet? If so, here are a few frequently asked questions I receive on what do turtles eat.

Are Turtles Carnivorous?

Some turtles, such as Snapping Turtles, eat only meat and no plant matter. But the majority of turtles are omnivorous and eat both plants and animals. Their ability to eat in a flexible manner is a major reason why turtles have survived for hundreds of millions of years and several extinction events.

What Do Box Turtles Eat?

Box turtles eat a little more plant matter than true aquatic turtles do. They eat 50% vegetarian so you will want to provide chopped leafy greens like spinach, kale, lettuce, and chard as a salad base. Add some soft vegetables like zucchini and tomato to the blend. Tougher veggies like beets and carrots can be diced or grated into pieces of the right size. And then top it off with fresh fruit free of skins like grapes, mango, melon, and apple.

What is Turtle Favorite Food?

It’s hard to know what a turtle’s favorite food is. Since turtles have a different sense of smell and taste buds from us they crave things we would find disgusting. A nice, rotting rat might be a delightful treat for a turtle. So offer your aquatic pet turtle a rich selection of animal and plant based foods. Offer insects one week, fish the next, fruit after that. That way they are sure to get their favorite food every so often.

Jason Roberts
About Jason Roberts
Jason is an aquarium fanatic that has been a fish hobbyist for almost three decades.