In the back rooms of the London Aquarium, many animals deemed to aggressive to go into the display tanks live in their on private biomes. One such animal is Rufus, the Chinese Soft-Shelled Turtle. As a rule, these strange turtles are angry and short-sighted, which makes them likely candidates for biting the fingers of children who leave them trailing in the open pools around the aquarium, so as you might imagine he is kept safely away. Rufus was donated to the aquarium by a pet owner who no longer had the resources to feed him, or simply got bored of him. While is was better to donate Rufus than to abandon him in a local pond, far too many people donate their pets each year, and this can cause problems for the aquarium, who can only house so many. It’s far better to keep your turtle, or sell them to a local pet shop where they can have a new owner.
The Soft-Shelled Turtle, or Pelodiscus Sinensis, despite its name has a shell no softer than that of any other turtle, instead owing its name to the lack of sharp ridges that cover the shells of most turtles and the flexible edges that their shells have. The centre of the shell (or carapace) is made of bone and as hard as any other species. In general, Chinese Soft-Shelled Turtles are a dark khaki colour across their shell and on their limbs, like Rufus, but some have a more mottled, blotchy colouration. Several darker lines can often be seen around the head area, but they are difficult to spot on Rufus, since he seldom stops moving when people are near. The strange shape of the nostrils, that resemble long tubes, are used as snorkels to breath below the water. They are also useful as they are able to release waste products from that area, which means they don’t lose much water from urinating. This is useful because these turtles live in areas where salt water and freshwater mix, meaning the slightly salty water is often bad to drink.
Chinese Soft-Shelled Turtles eat mainly invertebrates, crustaceans like shrimp and small fish in the wild, which are plentiful in their habitats. However, these turtles are rather opportunistic and have been known to eat plant life, and in captivity, pet food and small vertebrates like mice and young frogs. Be warned though, they don’t make for good ratters. I fed Rufus with a few frozen prawns, which he swam up to the surface to receive. Keeping my fingers out of the way, I waved the food in the water until he smelt it and came to me, and then I released it in front of him so that he could take it away. Unfortunately, Rufus has fairly poor eyesight, and at one point did not see me release the food, where upon it sank to the bottom, with Rufus looking at me angrily and expectantly. He found it eventually, but not after a few malicious looks at my fingers.
In China, people eat soft shelled turtles fairly regularly, even to the point where they are farmed, with many millions being eaten nationally. They are often made into a sort of turtle soup, or stewed with vegetables, and are fairly nutritious. In Japan these turtles are considered a delicacy, and can be eaten in a variety of ways. In the West, they are mainly kept as pets, like Rufus before he came to the aquarium, and you can find them in larger pet shops across the country. Luckily, these turtles are in plentiful supply, and are unlikely to ever be in danger of extinction.
After feeding Rufus his fill of frozen prawns, I waved goodbye to him and went on to feed some of the larger, flatter denizens of the aquarium.