River Turtle Species Types
River turtles are various species of reptile within the order Testudines, the order to which all turtle species belong. What sets them apart is their habitat is specific to rivers, although there may be some individuals of a species who are not limited to rivers alone. They are still types of freshwater turtles, but they are distinguished due to this specificity of habitat. Within these different types of river turtles are various specific characteristics that distinguish one from another. These include physical traits such as shell shape and facial features, as well as behavioral differences.
At AnimalWised, we look at the different river turtle species types. We provide the names, characteristics and other information about each river turtle, as well as photos of what they look like.
- Razor-backed musk turtle (Sternotherus carinatus)
- Matamata turtle (Chelus fimbriatus)
- Mary river turtle (Elusor macrurus)
- Brazilian snake-necked turtle (Hydromedusa maximiliani)
- Magdalena river turtle (Podocnemis lewyana)
- Big-headed turtle (Platysternon megacephalum)
- Madagascan big-headed turtle (Erymnochelys madagascariensis)
- Nubian flapshell turtle (Cyclanorbis elegans)
- Big Bend slider (Trachemys gaigeae)
- Hoge's side-necked turtle (Mesoclemmys hogei)
- Other rover turtle species types
Razor-backed musk turtle (Sternotherus carinatus)
It is native to the United States and lives in rivers with medium or strong currents. They usually have sandy or gravel river bottoms. This species requires the presence of dead wood in their habitat. This is because they climb on it to sunbathe or take refuge under water. It can also be found in some lakes or swamps.
This is a type of small river turtle, since it only measures between 5-6" (13-15 cm) in length. It is characterized as dark brown to orange in color with black markings. In the shell we find a small rounded keel, characteristic of this species and from which they derive their name.
Matamata turtle (Chelus fimbriatus)
As evidenced in th photo below, this is one of the most peculiar and rare river turtles that exist. In fact, we can say it is one of the most interesting looking animals we have come across. It is native to Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador. It lives mainly in the basins of large rivers such as the Amazon and the Orinoco, but it can also be in swampy areas and marshes where the rivers flow.
Its appearance is particularly strange. Their head appears oversized and their shell looks both squashed and spiky at the same time. In this way they resemble a piece of wood. It has an elongated neck with frilled tubercules on the side which look like axolotl gills. They also have a distinctive horn which grows out of the center of their head. At birth it is salmon pink or reddish with green or black spots, but as it grows it changes to brown or dull gray tones.
Learn more about other animals that live in this aquatic ecosystem with our article on types of river dolphins.
Mary river turtle (Elusor macrurus)
More commonly known in its native country as the punk turtle, it is a species of river turtle endemic to Australia. It only lives in streams with currents. They need to be fast and shallow for good oxygenation. When they rest they move to the deep wells of the same rivers. It is not usually in reservoirs or other types of habitats.
It can measure up to 20" (50 cm) in length which makes it one of the largest river turtles in Australia. The carapace coloration can be almost black, reddish or brown. Unfortunately, it is classified as endangered.
Learn more about the types of native Australian animals with our related article.
Brazilian snake-necked turtle (Hydromedusa maximiliani)
This is another curious-looking species of river turtle, this time endemic to Brazil. It is classified in the vulnerable category and lives exclusively in mountainous rivers that are located in thick forests, with clear waters and rocky or sandy bottoms.
The size varies, since it measures from 4-8" (10-20 cm) and weighs between 0.3-1 lb (120-520 g). The coloration can be grayish or dark brown, which contrasts with the olive-green skin of the legs. Undoubtedly, its most characteristic feature is its long neck which gives it both a curious snakelike appearance and their common name.
Magdalena river turtle (Podocnemis lewyana)
Endemic to Colombia, it is unfortunately classified as critically endangered. This river turtle species develops mainly on the banks of the rivers that make up their habitat. They can also move to small tributaries, lagoons or flood zones, but will always remain connected to the main flow of the river.
Females measure about 15.5" (37 cm) and weigh about 12 lb (5.6 kg) on average, while males reach about 10" (25 cm) and weigh 3.5 lb (1.6 kg), so they are considerably smaller. This means they have a marked sexual dimorphism which isn't always common in types of river turtles. As shown in the photo below, the carapace color is mainly brown.
Discover more examples of sexual dimorphism in nature with our related article.
Big-headed turtle (Platysternon megacephalum)
If you look at the photo of a big-headed turtle, you can understand where they get their name. It is a species native to Asia, specifically to countries such as Cambodia, Japan, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam, among others. It is considered a specialist in terms of habitat, so it requires rivers or streams in cascades with clear waters from mountainous areas.
It is a peculiar species that is characterized by not only their protruding head, but also a relatively long tail. It reaches about 16" (40 cm) in length, although the shell only measures about 6-7" (15-18 cm). Their body protruding from the shell is a trait that distinguishes this species of river turtle from others.
Madagascan big-headed turtle (Erymnochelys madagascariensis)
The Madagascar loggerhead turtle is another critically endangered river turtle species type. As its name suggests, it is endemic to Madagascar where it occurs mainly in slow-moving rivers. They can also appear in open, permanent-water lakes and wetlands.
Larger than the previous species, the shell can be over 20" (50 cm) in length. It is brown in color. Its common name refers to its main characteristic, which is its large head. Unfortunately, it is considered one of the most endangered turtles in the world.
Nubian flapshell turtle (Cyclanorbis elegans)
Also known as the Nubian soft-shell turtle, this species is native to Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Ghana, Nigeria and Sudan. Although there were certain doubts regarding their habitat, everything indicates that it lives in large rivers with muddy substrates.
It measures about 28" (70 cm), but since its presence has become very rare, precise data on its size and appearance in general is missing. This is because it is classified as critically endangered and has not been detected for several years in several of the areas which compromise their natural habitat. It has been affected mainly by its consumption as a food and the massive destruction of its habitat.
Big Bend slider (Trachemys gaigeae)
This type of river turtle species is native to America, specifically the United States and Mexico. It lives in the basins of the Grande and Conchos rivers, as well as in channels of the Nazas river. It rarely leaves the water or strays from the main areas of the rivers, except for reproduction.
The appearance of the Big Bend slider is similar to that of the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), another well-known type of freshwater turtle which is also common in the United States. The alteration of its habitat has affected it to the point of being classified in the vulnerable category.
Hoge's side-necked turtle (Mesoclemmys hogei)
Hoge's side-necked turtle is a species of river turtle endemic to Brazil. It develops in the lower basin of the Paraíba River, southern Minas Gerais, the Itapemirim River and possibly the Tiete River, indicating that the species prefers river habitats. It has also been seen in smaller lakes and streams.
The maximum size reported is 15" (38 cm). Males weigh almost half as less than females. It is another species of river turtle classified as critically endangered.
Other rover turtle species types
There are many more species of river turtle that exist. In addition to the previous lost of river turtles, we share others so that you know more about the diversity of these animals. We also provide more photos of some of them. Keep in mind that some can also be found in other bodies of water such as lakes, ponds, swamps or estuaries.
- Western swamp turtle (Pseudemydura umbrina)
- Parker's snake-necked turtle (Chelodina parkeri)
- New Guinea snake-necked turtle (Chelodina novaeguineae)
- Eastern musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)
- Flattened musk turtle (Sternotherus depressus)
- Yellow-spotted Amazon river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis)
- South American river turtle (Podocnemis expansa)
- Red-headed Amazon river turtle (Podocnemis erythrocephala)
Now that you know about various species of river turtles, you can learn about turtles which live in other types of aquatic habitat with our article on types of sea turtles.
If you want to read similar articles to River Turtle Species Types, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.
- Animal Diversity Web. (2020). Retrieved from: https://animaldiversity.org/
- IUCN (2023). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2022-2. Retrieved from: https://www.iucnredlist.org