European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis)

Also known as: European pond terrapin
French: Cistude D'Europe
Spanish: galápago europeo
GenusEmys (1)
SizeCarapace length: up to 23 cm (2)

The European pond turtle is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Annex II of the EU Habitats Directive (3).

The olive, brown or black European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis) is one of the few freshwater species that live in Europe (4). Although its appearance varies over its large range, this turtle is usually easily identifiable by the bright yellow or gold speckling on the dark carapace and skin of many juveniles and adults (5), an attractive feature that makes it sought after in the pet trade. However, some populations can be nearly entirely black with very few yellow markings at all (6). In general, individuals from the north of the range tend to be markedly larger and darker than their southern counterparts (7). The colour of the male’s iris also varies per region, from red, brownish-yellow and yellow to pure white, while the eyes of females are generally yellow, occasionally white (2). There are currently 14 described regional subspecies, which differ in size, colour and markings (7) (8), although there is still much debate over the validity of these divisions (9).

Unlike its common name implies, the European pond turtle is not restricted to Europe, but in fact has a wide distribution that also includes northern Africa and western and central Asia (7). In Europe, it is largely confined to southern and central countries (1) (7).

This aquatic turtle is found in a wide variety of freshwater habitats, including ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and drainage canals, some of which may dry up completely during the summer months (1) (7). Preferred habitat is large bodies of slow-moving water with soft bottoms (mud or sand), lush vegetation and nearby sandy areas for nesting, although juveniles prefer shallow waters with depths of up to 50 centimetres (2) (7). The European pond turtle only leaves water to bask or nest (8).

Although the European pond turtle will bask on the shore or on floating logs/emerging objects during the day, this shy species will dive back into the water if disturbed (10). The species hunts underwater for fish, amphibians, tadpoles, worms, molluscs, crustaceans and aquatic insects, as well as foraging for the occasional plant (2) (10). The diverse climatic conditions of its extensive distribution means that, in the northern parts of its range, this turtle is forced to hibernate for long periods during the cold winter months, while in warmer, more southerly areas, it often aestivates to escape the summer’s heat (2) (9).

The European pond turtle usually emerges from hibernation by around the end of March, and mating begins from March to May, depending on the latitude (2) (11). 3 to 16 eggs, usually nine or ten, are laid in May and June in small holes dug in the ground (2) (10). The incubation period varies from around 57 to 90 days, and young may emerge in autumn or stay in the nest until the following spring (10) (11). In the northern parts of its range, a long hot summer is required for eggs to hatch, so this turtle may only successfully reproduce one in every four or five years (2). Since the life span of this long-lived turtle can exceed over 100 years, however, there are a number of potential opportunities to successfully produce young (10). Like many turtle species, the sex of offspring is dependent upon the incubation temperature, with females only produced at 28 degrees Celcius or higher (2) (11).

The European pond turtle’s wide distribution gives a deceptive impression of abundance, since its occurrence is often highly localized and populations in many parts of its range are in fact undergoing severe declines. Probably the greatest threat to this species comes from water pollution from agricultural, industrial and domestic/residential sources (8). Habitat destruction as a result of changing agricultural practices is also responsible for much of this decline. Particularly damaging have been the conversion of earthen drainage ditches to concrete ones, and the regular burning of vegetation (9).

Pollution, conversion of creeks to canals, increasing exploitation of groundwater resources and urban expansion have also destroyed many areas where this turtle was once plentiful (6) (12). The introduction of the exotic species, the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), to a number of areas, probably from released pets, is also of particular concern as it competes for the same food resources and basking spaces as the European pond turtle (12) (13). Additionally, illegal commercial collecting of the species from the wild has occurred for the pet trade (13) (14), although most on the market probably now come from captive-bred individuals.

The European pond turtle is legally protected over much of its range (6), and in Hungary, the WWF launched its own pond turtle protection project in 2002 (13). This has involved national habitat surveys and public awareness campaigns, in which leaflets on turtle protection issues have been distributed throughout Hungary’s schools, and environmental organisations and individuals (13). There is also long-term conservation action in Brandenburg, in the Southeastern German-Polish border region near Dresden, and a reintroduction program near Frankfurt. The recently described subspecies ingauna near Genoa, Italy, is subject of an intensive in-situ and captive breeding conservation program (8). European pond turtles are also being bred at CARAPAX, the European Center for Chelonian Conservation, Italy, with 200 to 250 hatching each year, destined for reintroduction programmes throughout the species' range. Several projects are running in northern Italy and the various subspecies are also being bred for further reintroductions in Tunisia, Valencia (Spain), and France (15). Encouragingly, a reintroduction programme in France between 2000 and 2002 proved very successful, involving the release of 35 adult European pond turtles in three groups in Lake Bourget, Savoie, with high rates of survival and nesting behaviour following their release. This success provides hope for the possibility of other reintroduction programmes in the future, where numbers in the wild should fall too low (16).

For more information on the European pond turtle: 

Authenticated (23/11/2006) by Peter Paul van Dijk, Director of Conservation International’s Centre for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS) Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program, and Deputy Chair and Program Officer of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group.

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2011)
  2. Turtles of the World (CD-ROM), by Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. and Barbour, R.W. (June, 2006)
  3. EU Habitats Directive (June, 2006)
  4. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  5. Levine, D. (1993) European Pond Turtle, Emys orbicularis. Tortuga Gazette, 29(6): 1 - 3. Available at:
  6. Tom Halvorsen Ltd (June, 2006)
  7. Emys Home (June, 2006)
  8. van Dijk, P.P. (2006) Pers. comm.
  9. Tortoise Trust: Highfield, A.C. BREEDING EMYS ORBICULARIS IN CAPTIVITY (The European Pond Turtle) (June, 2006)
  10. Vivarium: reptiles and amphibians exhibition (June, 2006)
  11. Reptilia Denmark (June, 2006)
  12. Fattizzo, T. (2004) Distribution and conservational problems of Emys orbicularis in Salento (South Apulia, Italy). Proceedings of the 3rd International Symposium on Emys orbicularis, Biologia, Bratislava, 59(14): 13 - 18.
  13. WWF Hungary (June, 2006)
  14. Kotenko, T. (2004) Distribution, habitats, abundance and problems of conservation of the European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis) in the Crimea (Ukraine): first results. Proceedings of the 3rd International Symposium on Emys orbicularis, Biologia, Bratislava, 59(14): 33 - 46.
  15. CARAPAX (June, 2006)
  16. Cadi, A. and Miquet, A. (2004) A reintroduction programme for the European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis) in Lake Bourget (Savoie, France): first results after two years. Proceedings of the 3rd International Symposium on Emys orbicularis, Biologia, Bratislava, 59(14): 155 - 159.