Reptiles come in a wide variety of forms and adaptations to excel within their given environment. While some prefer dry, rocky habitats, others prefer more tropical areas where access to water is easily available.
We are going to take a closer look at the reptiles that live in freshwater, but what does that mean exactly? And which reptiles are those?
Aquatic and semi-aquatic reptiles can be considered to live in freshwater based on water dependence. Freshwater is a valuable resource to many species, providing a place to hunt/forage, hide from predators, and pass the time. Some reptiles that fit this description are red-eared sliders, green basilisks, and water moccasins, though this list isn’t exclusive!
Let’s take a dip into the details of aquatic living for 9 different reptile species, how they’re adapted to their H2O habitat, and how to keep them as pets where possible.
What Does It Mean For Reptiles To Live In Freshwater?
Well, there are three main categories that a reptile can fall under: terrestrial (land), semi-aquatic (both land and water), and aquatic (water). For the purpose of this question, we will examine both semi-aquatic and aquatic species as these groups are supported mostly by bodies of water to obtain the necessary resources for their survival.
Aquatic species will spend all of their time lounging in the water or underneath the surface. They will rarely come to land, only for purposes such as laying eggs, basking in the sun, or foraging for food. Excellent examples of aquatic reptiles are sea turtles, sea snakes, and marine iguanas.
Similarly, semi-aquatic species will spend some time on land and some time in water. While they may not rest in the water as often as fully aquatic organisms, their means of survival are still heavily dependent on the water system nearby. In these instances, the water source may be utilized to gather food, escape predators, or just cool off.
Now remember, reptiles can not breathe in the water like a fish or even an amphibian can, meaning they won’t be exclusively aquatic! The scales on a reptile are waterproof and prevent them from absorbing oxygen through their skin, limiting them to the one lung in their body.
This lung allows them to breathe air efficiently while on land, though several species can be seen sporting various kinds of adaptations that allow them to breathe underwater for periods of time too.
Reptiles that live in freshwater can be considered either semi-aquatic or aquatic, and a majority of the time said reptiles will actually fit more with being semi-aquatic!
The basis we will follow is that certain reptile species are considered to live in freshwater if they are consistently found in and along waterways and other aquatic systems because of their living requirements. And even while utilizing both landscapes, some species may still favor one landscape over the other!
6 Pet Reptiles That Live In Freshwater
Let’s talk about pet reptiles that practically live in freshwater, their basic needs, and what makes them so special!
1. Red-Eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)
The red-eared slider is an interesting species of aquatic turtle that is arguably one of the most popular in the pet trade. With its mature size reaching 12 inches, fascinating red stripes along the sides of the head, and rather entertaining feeding behavior, this reptile has found its place in homes worldwide!
That is until they aren’t wanted anymore. As they grow, these turtles require more tank maintenance and care than many people realize before they purchase the animal. As a result, the slider will be released into a local waterway. Cases like this have inadvertently allowed the species to establish impressive numbers across a plethora of ecosystems and push native organisms out.
In the wild, red-eared sliders can tolerate both freshwater and brackish water (a mix of salt and fresh water). Though impressive, this only worsens the situation with the release and escaped pet sliders.
However, this is not meant to scare you away from purchasing a red-eared slider! Rather, it is extra information so you are aware of what to avoid as many states have made the release of this species into the wild illegal.
Expect to house a fully grown red-ear slider in at least a 50-gallon tank with enough water and land for their enjoyment, a UVB light, and a basking lamp setup. Since they are mostly aquatic creatures, you can expect to see them swimming throughout the tank or even sleeping at the bottom for a while.
Don’t be alarmed, because these reptiles can hold their breath on average for 30 minutes each dive! And when they aren’t in the water, they’re basking in the heat of the lamp (or sun).
You can spot them foraging on various aquatic plants, algae, snails, mollusks, small fish, and even insects if the opportunity shows before them! Sliders are omnivorous generalists, meaning that they will try to eat almost anything placed before them, whether it’s plant or animal matter. In captivity, you can enjoy watching them chase after fish or crunch on a snail shell!
2. Chinese Water Dragon (Physignathus cocincinus)
Also known as the Asian water dragon or green water dragon, the Chinese water dragon is a rarer reptile in the pet trade, but if you can manage to find a reputable breeder and are willing to put in the effort, this species is extremely rewarding to care for!
The water dragon’s natural habitat is in the areas of southern Asia where permanent bodies of water remain. This includes swamps, river banks, and in rainforests. This is a very freshwater-dependent species, as it utilizes the water to escape from predators, soak for enjoyment, and forage for food. A staple in the wild Chinese water dragon’s diet is fish, but seeing that they are omnivores, you can expect vegetation, insects, rodents, and birds to be on the list too!
Just as efficient at climbing as they are swimming, this reptile will spend its time out of the water resting on tree branches in the sun. Strong back legs accompanied by thick, long claws allow for a secure grip on the vegetation with enough power to leap into the water below whenever necessary.
Chinese water dragons grow to be around 3 feet long including the tail, so if kept in captivity, their enclosure will have to take this into account. Aim for a home that measures 6 feet tall, 4 feet wide, and 6 feet long with plenty of water to swim in and branches to climb through. With these dimensions, it may be best to keep the enclosure outdoors if your area is known for warm, humid weather. Otherwise, opt for basking and UVB lamps and mist regularly!
While they’re not the most beginner-friendly to keep as a pet due to the habitat requirements alone, there are a few upsides! When handled enough over time, Chinese water dragons are relatively tame and interactive with their owner.
3. Chinese Crocodile Lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus)
Don’t let the name fool you, as this reptile is not actually a crocodile! The Chinese crocodile lizard is in fact a lizard, but it gets its name from its tail since its scaly appearance resembles that of a true crocodile. And this tail has proven to be quite the adaptation, giving this lizard a leg up in the water for swimming thanks to its power boost!
Though considered semi-aquatic and found to spend time on land, it is not uncommon to also see a Chinese crocodile lizard taking long soaks in the water. They prefer clear, shallow pools of water and streams with a slow current, often found in the regions of northeastern Vietnam and southern China.
When threatened by predators, these creatures will make their get-away by diving into the stream and can even remain underwater for impressive amounts of time by reducing their respiratory rate to lessen oxygen consumption.
In captivity, Chinese crocodile lizards will thrive if housed alone in a tank that can fit a heated and filtered pond measuring nearly 7 feet by 7 feet with various perching branches just above the water’s surface and a spot of dry land.
Yes, you heard that right! It’s even more surprising when you learn they only grow to be 2 feet in length! Now they may suffice with a slightly smaller pond the size of an aquatic turtle’s tank, but the more the habitat can mimic that of the wild, the better it will be for your critter.
Now just add a UVB and basking lamp set and you can relax in awe over your lazy lizard! I will say a great bonus point to owning this species is that their carnivorous diet makes for an easy and cheap meal. You can provide earthworms, insects, mealworms, snails, and even baby mice.
I will stress that you purchase your reptile from a reputable source that breeds captive lizards. This species is endangered in the wild and unfortunately, there is still a high rate of illegal trading for them in the industry. It is also our responsibility to avoid the wild-caught crocodile lizards being sold on the market to stop contributing to the wild population’s decline!
4. Green Basilisk (Basiliscus plumifrons)
I had never heard of the “Jesus Christ lizard” until I moved to Florida a few years ago, and might I say I was surprised the first time I ever saw one of these guys run across the water! This nickname is what the green basilisk is most often called, though they may also be known as the plumed basilisk or the double-crested basilisk.
But how do they actually run across the water? Well, through evolution, green basilisks developed the ability to sprint about 5 feet per second across the water’s surface. This speed aided by their specialized feet and tail allows for efficient movement over the water’s surface to escape predation. Another fascinating feature about this reptile is they can hold their breath for upwards of an hour underwater!
This reptile is both semi-arboreal and semi-aquatic, splitting its time between the warm water below and the tree branches right above. Though it’s safe to say they live in freshwater with how much they depend on the resource for their survival!
Plumed basilisks are not the easiest to care for in captivity, but what freshwater-living reptiles will be? This species requires a large habitat, measuring 4 feet tall, 2 feet wide, and 6 feet long. They need plenty of swimming and climbing space alike and will do best with a heat source and light source providing UVB.
As for the diet, offer various insects, crustaceans, small rodents, birds, fish, flowers, fruits, and greens. Basilisks are typically not the pickiest omnivore and will be pleased with whatever they can find.
5. Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)
In a similar fashion to the red-eared slider, the musk turtle is also an aquatic turtle species that lives almost permanently in freshwater. However, they are much smaller, maxing out at only 5 inches long! So, how exactly do these creatures survive in water?
Recent research has revealed that musk turtles have a special tongue adapted specifically for aquatic living! These tongues have highly vascularized buds called “papillae” that draw in oxygen from the water, allowing them to remain submerged for several months at a time.
This is especially beneficial when winter rolls around, as musk turtles will burrow themselves into the soft substrate below and wait until it starts to warm up again.
Even their hunting happens underwater as they sift through the substrate and vegetation for seeds, insects, snails, and algae. The same diet can easily be followed if the musk turtle is your pet!
Despite the miniature size, musk turtles appreciate larger bodies of water with thick vegetation since that is where most of their days are spent! If possible, give an adult musk turtle at least 2 feet of depth in the water column. However, a tank size such as 29 gallons will do the trick just fine for these little ones. Proper filtration will be a must with a reptile nicknamed “stinkpot”, and you can even use the flow of the filter to create a slow-moving stream effect.
And since they are nocturnal, you won’t need a heat lamp since this species won’t come out of the water to bask. In fact, you’ll likely see them snoozing away on the bottom of the tank for most of the day, only to start exploring again once night falls!
6. Asian Water Monitor (Varanus salvator)
The last pet reptile that lives in and relies on freshwater is the Asian water monitor. I left this reptile last on the list as it is typically better off left in the wild; keeping this beast comes at a price and some sacrifices. But if you are an advanced hobbyist and have the capabilities to bring one into your home, they might just be the perfect fit for you!
Though grouped as semi-aquatic, Asian water monitors depend heavily on water for hunting, travel, and aversion, and will stay submerged for up to 30 minutes at a time doing these activities. They evolved for efficient swimming and have an incredible sense of smell to hunt prey.
They are known to be extreme carnivores as they will eat anything they think they can consume. This can include eggs, birds, small mammals, tortoises, snakes, frogs, and fish.
Get prepared to eat up a lot of space with this creature’s home, as a water monitor will (on average) need a space that is twice the length of its mature body. These lizards grow up to 8 feet long, so a 16-foot enclosure is not an easy task!
Don’t forget to add in a large area for water, stock the land full of plants, and set up your basking lamp and a UVB light if desired to resemble the river banks and swamps they originated from.
If you need some enclosure ideas, check out the insane setup in the video above from one of my favorite YouTubers!
3 Wild Reptiles That Live In Freshwater
Now it’s time to talk about wild reptiles that practically live in freshwater, their basic needs, and what makes them so special!
1. Caiman Lizard (Dracaena guianensis)
First up on our list of wild reptiles living in a freshwater environment is the caiman lizard! Frequently mistaken for a crocodile or alligator thanks to so many shared traits, caiman lizards have earned the title of semi-aquatic in their own rights.
Originating from south and central Americas, this 4-foot-long reptile can be seen in swamps, marshes, and in flooded habitats. They may bask on low-hanging branches that extend out over the water to warm up before going for another swim. Long toes and claws give them an advantage while climbing, whereas their third, clear eyelids act as goggles giving them an advantage while underwater too!
This reptile can be considered to live in freshwater due to its dependence on the water habitat. Their diet consists of turtles and a variety of freshwater invertebrates such as snails, clams, and crawfish. Most of their days are spent foraging or relaxing in the water.
2. Water Moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus)
Whether you know them as water moccasins or cottonmouths, one thing is sure to come to mind immediately: to steer clear of them in the wild. While only reaching 4 feet in length at most, this venomous snake packs a deadly punch for animals and humans alike!
Identifiable by their triangular head and large jowls, cottonmouth snakes are recorded to be in very wet habitats, including swamps, wetlands, and river floodplains. Be wary if you swim in these areas as this viper can strike you from 2 feet away faster than you can realize!
They prefer heavy, low vegetation to hide in for both rest and hunting tactics. This snake is not arboreal and will instead bask in low places close to the water for an easy transition.
Due to their semi-aquatic nature, water moccasins have a diet that relies heavily on sound freshwater access. Lizards, fish, birds, amphibians, mammals, baby alligators, and even smaller snakes are on the menu.
3. Water Anole (Anolis aquaticus)
One of the most interesting freshwater reptiles (in my opinion, at least) is the water anole! Native to southern Costa Rica and Central America, this reptile will inhabit streams and the land surrounding them. Even if they go for a climb up a tree, they’re never too far away from water!
Recent studies have revealed that this semi-aquatic anole has effectively adapted to aquatic life using a unique technique known as “rebreathing”. With their already tough, hydrophobic skin, this critter is able to form a thin layer of air that sits atop their head while underwater. Using this bubble, the water anole expires and respires, recycling the oxygen for up to 18 minutes until they have to resurface again.
Many have called this lizard a “scuba diver” due to this impressive involuntary function! Check out the video above to see the fascinating technique for yourself!
This is essential for this species, as they spend much of their time in freshwater either hiding from predators or foraging for food.
Adding to the interest, water anoles are very opportunistic feeders, trying to munch on anything they might be able to fit in their mouths. There is a limit to this, however, as they won’t stray too far from their beloved insects and invertebrates unless it’s for some baby mice!
While there hasn’t been much research on this particular anole species, it is suggested that their wild population remains below 1,000 individuals. For this reason, it may not be the wisest decision to obtain one of these creatures to keep in captivity. They are best left in their natural habitat to swim and scuba dive to their heart’s content!
Hopefully after reading this article, you feel more confident regarding the difference between aquatic and semi-aquatic species and the variations that occur within these groups as well. Some semi-aquatic reptiles will have more aquatic habits than other semi-aquatic reptiles that may prefer to spend more of their time on land.
Regardless, the reptiles we’ve discussed, whether aquatic or semi-aquatic, live in freshwater environments. They are highly dependent on water resources to carry out their daily activities of foraging for food, traveling, relaxing, and hiding from prey.
And keeping (most of) these reptiles as pets is possible so long as you’re willing to put in the extra work, time, and money that is required to keep these critters happy and healthy!