People have a strange relationship with the sun. Some curse it on days when the temperature is boiling, others strip down to a bathing suit and allow the rays to cook them for just the right amount of time – too long and you get burnt, like a roast left in the oven. Then, when it’s cold, we’re all delighted to see it again.
Turtles have an even more complex relationship with the sun. It’s much more a matter of life or death for them. As humans have learned that they need to avoid the intense rays for long periods of time, turtles love to bask in sunlight, and they need to do so.
Most cold-blooded species do. In this blog, we’ll go over the best ways to get your turtle the light they need to thrive and get into some of the dangers that come with overexposure.
How Much Sunlight Do Turtles Need?
First, it’s important to understand that your turtle loves direct sunlight. They’ll enjoy whatever lighting setup you have prepared for them indoors, but it’s a very special treat for them to enjoy a little time outside.
If you’re worried about feeding them in their enclosure and getting the tank messy, you could combine their feeding time with their outdoor time. Usually, a turtle will eat their meal in one sitting, especially after they’re fully grown. And since you shouldn’t allow your turtle out in direct sun for more than a half hour, that should be more than enough time to finish their meal.
If they don’t finish, you can always bring it back to their tank. But they’ll certainly be grateful for the brief getaway.
There are, however, some precautions you should take during that half hour outdoors. First, you’ll need to ensure there are no predators nearby. In residential areas and cities, your main concern are cats, racoons and any large birds hovering nearby. Cats, in particular, are much faster to act than your turtle, and can wind up doing some real damage with their claws.
Crowded areas are also not ideal, as a lot of people might make your turtle too nervous to be comfortable. As your turtle gets more comfortable in the area you’ve designated to take it outside, they should feel freer to explore.
Obviously, natural sunlight is much better for your turtle than artificial, though they will require a good deal of that as well.
Why Do Turtles Need Sunlight?
A turtle needs some light for twelve hours a day, but it doesn’t have to necessarily be natural light the entire time.
You may have seen, in nature, turtles lined up together on an exposed rock or log just off the water, sitting in the sun. To understand why, first, think of your own body. We are endothermic beings. Our own metabolism keeps our body at a core temperature of around 98.6 degrees fahrenheit.
Turtles, however, are cold-blooded or ectothermic. “Ecto” translates to outside. They have nothing maintaining a core temperature, and instead rely on the outside environment for all their heat.
So they require quite a bit of sun and heat in order to survive. Think about the life of a turtle, spending the night in the water. The temperature probably drops several degrees. When they get up in the morning, they’re almost too cold to move easily. They use the sun to warm their bodies up for the day.
Do Turtles Need UV Light?
But too much of anything in nature can be harmful. You only want them in the direct sun for about a half hour. The rest of the day, they will require UV or UVB lighting to stay warm indoors. UVA lighting may also be used, but the importance of it is up for debate. It’s associated with aging of the skin, which may not be ideal for a turtle.
UVB lighting, however, is indisputably good for your turtle. They require a lot of calcium to keep their bony shell strong. They also require a lot of D3, which the body creates through absorbing the UVB light.
Giving them the right amount of calcium and D3 ensures they will develop healthily.
What Happens If Turtles Don’t Get Sufficient UVB Light?
Not getting enough UVB light can create serious health problems for your turtle. They won’t create enough D3, nor will they utilize the calcium. This can result in the bones and shell becoming weak, susceptible to breaking easily.
A broken shell can lead to infections, and infections lead to death.
How Do I Give My Turtle Enough UVA, UVB and heat?
First, an important word of warning for you, as you will be the one handling the lighting. Never look directly into the turtle lights that you have set up. They are far too bright for the human iris!
All UV lighting and heat for your turtle can be provided by purchasing specialized reptile lamps, available at most pet stores and reptile farms. What’s important is that you do your research. Some lights only provide UVA light and heat, meaning your turtle won’t be getting that all-important UVB light.
A simple checking of the packaging should be enough, but you should go the extra mile and check product reviews to make sure the lamp will last and provide the sufficient heat for your creature.
One of the best options on the market is to find a Mercury Vapor Lamp. These can provide your turtle with heat, daylight, UBA and UVA light all in one light. These lamps will use a lot more electricity than a standard halogen, the other suitable option, so you’ll need to be prepared for a slight increase in your heat bill.
The other light that’s important for a turtle is a basking lamp. These are also known as daylight lamps that produce heat and light. These should be aimed somewhere near the center of where your turtle enjoys basking, usually on top of a rock or large branch.
The intention is to experiment with basking temperatures of around 90 and 100 degrees until you find something that your turtle appears comfortable with. This should be where your little friend spends a great deal of their day.
Which Turtle Species Need Sunlight?
There is not a single species of turtle that science has recognized that does not require sunlight to survive. It’s an essential part of their daily life. They take in a lot of nutrients from the sun’s rays. More importantly, they absolutely need the sun to live, at least for a part of the day.
But sunlight is accessible to land-based tortoises and turtles fairly easily. It’s the semi-aquatic and aquatic turtles that will need that extra help. Here’s a list of turtles that require some direct sunlight:
- Red-eared sliders
- Painted turtles
- Sea turtles
- Eastern pacific green turtles
- Box turtles
- Yellow-bellied turtles
- African-sidenecked turtles
- Snapping turtles
- Mud turtles
- Common musk turtles
- Map turtles
- Wood turtles
For the rest of the day, proper UV and UVB lighting is necessary to keep your turtle happy and healthy.
Do Baby Turtles Need Sunlight?
Baby turtles require both sunlight and UV light to properly grow. All bulbs give off some heat, but you’re going to want to use bulbs that give off the most heat to keep your baby turtle nice and warm. An incandescent bulb is best for baby turtles.
Can Direct Sunlight Kill a Turtle?
Turtles can not die from being out in the sun, but they may want to hide in the shade if they get too hot. On some days, in some climates, we all need a little break from intense heat, even if we are ectothermic. So once your turtle is comfortable with their surroundings, they might want to retreat to a shadier area after that half hour. That may be a good time to bring them inside.
Can a Turtle Bask Too Much?
Prolonged basking, longer than 6 to 8 hours a day, may be a sign that something is wrong with your turtle. Prolonged basking can mean that they are too sick to move out of the area when they have grown uncomfortable. At times such as these, it’s ideal to take them to the vet.
Getting the lighting right in your turtle’s tank is one of the most vital things that you must do in order to create an environment for your turtle to thrive, but it’s still not enough. Remember, your turtle is naturally used to the outdoors, and while you’ve done a fine job mimicking it in their enclosure, they’ll still need a trip to the real thing.
So make sure your yard or outdoor area is safe and quiet for your turtle to be comfortable out there, then start taking them out every day to eat. This will give them a nice, daily vacation and improve their mood. You can tell if your turtle loves you when they start to take an interest in what you’re doing.
And they’ll be craning their necks your way more often after that trip to direct sunlight.