Keeled box turtle (Cuora mouhotii)

Also known as: Jagged-shelled turtle, keel-backed terrapin
Synonyms: Pyxidea mouhotii
GenusCuora (1)
SizeLength: up to 18 cm (2)

The keeled box turtle is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

This terrestrial Asian box turtle gets its name from the three large keels, or raised ridges, on its upper shell. Overall it is brownish in colour, ranging from tan to mahogany to dark brown (4). As well as noticeable keels, the upper shell, or carapace, is serrated at the rear, and occasionally also at the front. The lower shell, or plastron, is yellow to light brown with a dark-brown smudge on each scute (2). Like other box turtles, the front of the lower shell is hinged, allowing them to fold it up when their head is withdrawn, and shut themselves in their protective ‘box’ (4). The head is brown with dark fine lines, and it has a short snout and a hooked, strong upper jaw. Its limbs are grey to dark brown or black, and the hindlegs are slightly club-shaped, whilst the fronts of the forelegs are covered with large scales (2). The toes of the keeled box turtle are only partially webbed, which hints at its terrestrial, rather than aquatic, lifestyle. Males have longer and thicker tails than females, and often the sexes can also be distinguished by the colour of their irises; females tend to have orange or red eyes, whilst the irises of males are brown or black (4). Juveniles are quite flat, and become more domed in shape as they develop (2).

The keeled box turtle occurs in China, in the Guangdong, Guangxi and Hunan provinces and on Hainan Island, and in Vietnam, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Thailand, Myanmar and in India, in the states of Assam, Pradesh, Meghalava and Arunachal (2) (4) (5).

Unlike other turtles, the keeled box turtle is not aquatic, but is instead found in forests, often in deep layers of leaf litter, and in rocky, mountainous regions (2).

There is little known about the biology of this species in the wild, and so most of the information available comes from those in captivity. Captive keeled box turtles lay brittle eggs between June and September (2). They typically lay two clutches a year with each clutch containing one to five elongated eggs, and like other turtles they do not care for their young (2) (4).

During courtship, males can be very aggressive towards females, and will often chase the female, biting at her shell, legs and neck, sometimes even causing an injury (2) (4). The male will persist for some time before the female finally relents to his advances. In the wild, keeled box turtles show a preference for plant foods, particularly fallen fruits, but also occasionally feed on worms and snails (6).

Despite its large distribution, it is thought that numbers of the keeled box turtle have declined drastically in some areas, primarily because of over-collection. This turtle is collected for local consumption, and for the national and international food and pet trade, and is exploited on such a large-scale it is highly unlikely to be sustainable. For example, between 1994 and 1999, 6560 keeled box turtles were legally exported from Vietnam. This major threat is compounded by habitat loss and degradation, due to deforestation and shifting cultivation (7).

Due to the unsustainable trade in this species, the keeled box turtle was listed in 2003 on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and thus trade should now be strictly controlled and monitored (3). Unfortunately, Lao PDR is not a party to CITES, but has increased efforts to control wildlife trade in recent years and as a result, fewer turtles are seen in markets (7).

As part of the World Conservation Society’s Asian Turtle Conservation Program, efforts are underway to protect the keeled box turtle within Vietnam’s Cuc Phuong National Park. Conservation actions include field research, training forest rangers and incorporating turtle awareness into community-based education programs (8).

For further information regarding the conservation of Asian turtles see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2007)
  2. Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. and Barbour, R.W. (1997) Turtles of the World. ETI Information Systems Ltd, Netherlands. Available at:
  3. CITES (January, 2007)
  4. The Asian Turtle Consortium (May, 2007)
  5. The EMBL Reptile Database (May, 2007)
  6. The Turtle Puddle (May, 2007)
  7. CITES Proposals for Amendment of Appendices I and II (May, 2007)
  8. World Conservation Society (May, 2007)