Malayan flat-shelled turtle (Notochelys platynota)

GenusNotochelys (1)
SizeAdult shell length: 32 – 36 cm (2) (3)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (4).

Named for its distinctively flattened upper shell (the carapace), the Malayan flat-shelled turtle is one of few turtle species in the world to have more than five vertebral scutes, typically having six or seven instead (3). The carapace of adult males is typically yellowish-brown with dark brown mottling, whereas female and immature turtles often have a more uniformly olive- or reddish-brown shell (3). The underside of the shell (the plastron) is yellow to orange in colour with black patches (5), and the angular head and the neck are dark brown, although the chin and throat turn a paler yellow with age (5). This turtle has webbed toes, which bear long and strong claws (6).

As well as having differently coloured shells, male and female Malayan flat-shelled turtles can also be distinguished by the male’s longer, thicker tail and slightly concave plastron (3). The male also often has a much darker head and neck than the female, and the nose may become tinged with red during the breeding season (3). The hatchlings are brightly coloured compared to the adults, with a bright yellow or green shell, and have been described as some of the most beautiful young turtles in the world (7).

This Southeast Asian turtle occurs in peninsular Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei (3) (8). There are also records of sightings in Vietnam (2).

The Malayan flat-shelled turtle inhabits clear, shallow waters with small currents (3) (8), such as those in streams, ponds, marshes and soft-bottomed swamps (5). It may be found up to altitudes of 1,200 metres (3) (8).

The Malayan flat-shelled turtle feeds primarily on aquatic plants and fruits that have fallen to the ground (5) (8), particularly figs and palm fruits (8). However, it is also known to feed on small quantities of snails and arthropods (8).

Being one of the least known semi-aquatic turtles in tropical Asia (3), there is no information available on the breeding biology of this species.

The two most significant threats to this species are habitat degradation and hunting. The Malayan flat-shelled turtle is hunted both as a meat source (in just one day, the East Asian food market may sell up to three tonnes of these individuals (1) (7)) and for the pet trade; in 1999, Malaysia exported at least 12,300 individuals for sale in the pet trade despite their reputation for not surviving in captivity (7) (9) (10).

As the volume of this species in trade has increased, the area of suitable habitat has decreased, leaving the Malayan flat-shelled turtle vulnerable to extinction (1). Habitat is lost when large areas of forest are converted to palm-oil plantations and other uses, and even selective logging can affect this species, by disrupting the natural movement of water through a forest and by creating a network of roads that allow trappers to reach previously inaccessible areas (8).

Before 2005, the Malayan flat-shelled turtle was one of a handful of Asian freshwater turtles not listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (7), meaning that the international trade in this species took place unchecked.

Thankfully, its addition to Appendix II of CITES in 2005 has resulted in a reduction of individuals exported from Indonesia (11) and a suspension of the export of all wild individuals from Malaysia (10). In addition, the Malayan flat-shelled tortoise is protected by wildlife protection acts in Brunei, Thailand and Singapore (8).

For further information on turtle conservation in Asia 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 (May, 2010)
  2. Stuart, B. (1998) A Survey of Amphibians and Reptiles in Phou Louey National Biodiversity Conservation Area, Houaphanh Province, Lao PDR. CPAWM/ Wildlife Conservation Society, Vientiane.
  3. Brophy, T.R. and Ernst, C.H. (2004) Sexual dimorphism, allometry and vertebral scute morphology in Notochelys platynota (Gray, 1834). Hamadryad, 29(1): 80-88.
  4. CITES (May, 2010)
  5. Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. and Barbour, R.W. (1997) Turtles of the World. ETI Information Systems Ltd, Netherlands.
  6. Gray, J.E. (1834) Characters of several new species of freshwater tortoises (Emys) from India and China. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1834: 53-54.
  7. Gurley, R. (2003) Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles. Living Art Publishing, Oklahoma.
  8. CITES (2004) Consideration of Proposals for Amendment of Appendices I and II, Proposal 18. Thirteenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties, Bangkok, Thailand. 
  9. Chan, E.H. (2004) Turtles in trouble. Siri Syarahan Inaugural KUSTEM, 7: 28.
  10. Webb, G.J.W., Manolis, S.C. and Gray, M. (2008) Captive Breeding and Marketing of Turtles. Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. Barton, Australian Capital Territory.
  11. CITES (2010) Interpretation and Implementation of the Convention. Species Trade and Conservation Issues: Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. Fifteenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties, Doha, Qatar.