Frog-faced softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii)

Also known as: Cantor’s giant softshell turtle
Synonyms: Pelochelys cumingii, Pelochelys poljakowii
GenusPelochelys (1)
SizeLength: up to 2 m (2)
Weightup to 50 kg (2)

The frog-faced softshell turtle is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1).

With its broad head, short snout and ‘frog-like’ facial features to which it owes its name, the frog-faced softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) is a distinctive, easily identified reptile (3).

The upper and lower shell, neck, and limbs of the adult frog-faced softshell turtle are an unpatterned olive-brown, whereas the juvenile may have a yellow-rimmed, dark-spotted shell and a similarly spotted head (3).

Instead of the hard exterior shell seen on most other turtles, the frog-faced softshell turtle has ribs that extend out laterally and are covered by rubbery skin, forming a soft shell (2). Like other softshell turtles in the genus Pelochelys, both the adult and juvenile have smooth shells, although sharp scales may be present on the underside of the forelimbs (3).

The frog-faced softshell turtle is the largest of the softshell turtles and has been known to grow to over two metres in length (3).

The frog-faced softshell turtle occurs in Southeast Asia. Its range extends from India to southern China, and south through Vietnam and Thailand to Malaysia, western Indonesia, Philippines and northern New Guinea (1) (3) (8). The northern New Guinea population possibly represents a distinct species (3).

The frog-faced softshell turtle population in Vietnam may now be extinct, and the populations in Lao People's Democratic Republic and Thailand are also believed to be teetering on the edge of extinction (4).

The frog-faced softshell turtle inhabits lowland freshwater habitats, such as inland streams, large rivers, swamps, mudflats and estuaries (3) (4). 

Not very much is known of the frog-faced softshell turtle’s biology as it spends much of its life buried underground with only its snout above ground (2).

The frog-faced softshell turtle tends to be an aggressive predator and feeds on a wide variety of aquatic creatures including fish and crustaceans. It has also been known to eat plants on occasion (3) (5). It has a powerful bite that can crush bone and has been described as one of the fastest striking animals on the planet, even beating the cobra (2).

The frog-faced softshell turtle nests in muddy riverbanks between February and March and lays 20 to 28 eggs per clutch. The spherical eggs measure around 30 to 35 millimetres in diameter (2) (3). 

Habitat loss and direct exploitation are the greatest threats to the frog-faced softshell turtle (1).

The frog-faced softshell turtle is hunted for meat, eggs, decoration, pets and also as an alternative 'medicine' (4). There is a low but consistent rate of domestic trade of the frog-faced softshell turtle in most markets in coastal parts of Bangladesh and Indonesia (1), as well as a worryingly large illegal trade of these turtles from Cambodia to Vietnam (4).

In Cambodia, the frog-faced softshell turtle is easily captured by hunters who use bamboo traps or hunting dogs (4).

The frog-faced softshell turtle is currently listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that the trade of this extraordinary turtle should be strictly monitored to prevent overexploitation (6).

A recent discovery of the frog-faced softshell turtle nesting in abundance along the Mekong River in Cambodia in 2007 and the subsequent opening of the Mekong Turtle Conservation Centre (MTCC) in June 2011 has given scientists hope that this rare species of turtle can be saved from the brink of extinction (2) (7). 

Find out more about the frog-faced softshell turtle and its conservation:

More information on reptile conservation in Cambodia:

Authenticated (20/10/11) by Olivier S.G. Pauwels, Research Associate at the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences, Brussels, Belgium.

  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2010)
  2. Conservation International - Press release (May, 2007)
  3. Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. and Barbour, R.W. (1997) Turtles of the World. ETI Information Systems Ltd., Netherlands. Available at:
  4. WWF - Cantor’s Giant Soft-shelled Turtle (December, 2010)
  5. Alderton, D. (1988) Turtles and Tortoises of the World. Blandford Press, London.
  6. CITES (October, 2011)
  7. Conservation International (July, 2011)
  8. The Reptile Database (October, 2011)