Southeast Asian soft terrapin (Amyda cartilaginea)

Also known as: Asiatic softshell turtle, Southeast Asian softshell turtle
GenusAmyda (1)
SizeLength: up to 83 cm (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1) and listed on Appendix I of CITES (3).

The Southeast Asian soft terrapin is a somewhat unusual turtle, with a long, tubular snout (4), paddle-like limbs, and a shell covered with leathery skin instead of the bony plates that many other turtles possess (5). This tough skin is olive-grey to brownish-green on the upper shell, or carapace, and white or greyish on the lower shell (2). The carapace of young Southeast Asian soft terrapins is patterned with many yellow-bordered black spots and yellow dots, but this tends to fade with age (2). Small yellow spots may also speckle the olive skin of the head, neck and limbs, and orange to pinkish blotches sometimes occur on the side of the head (2) (4). Young individuals may have several rows of raised bumps on their carapace, but like the yellow patterning, these too disappear in large adults (2). The tail of this turtle can be used to distinguish between the sexes, with males having longer and thicker tails than females (2).

Widely distributed in Southeast Asia, the Southeast Asian soft terrapin is found from eastern India to Thailand, southern Lao, Cambodia, and southern Vietnam, through Peninsular Malaysia to Borneo, Sumatra and Java (2) (4).

The Southeast Asian soft terrapin occurs in a wide variety of freshwater habitats, from ponds, swamps, lakes, and muddy, slow-flowing lowland rivers, to fast-flowing streams and waterfalls up to 900 metres above sea level (2) (4) (6).

Often spotted with just its distinctive snout protruding from the water, the Southeast Asian soft terrapin spends much of its time buried in the muddy or sandy bottom of its aquatic habitat. At night it may emerge from the water onto land, where it will either feed or burrow into the sand and rest for long periods (2) (4). A primarily carnivorous turtle, the Southeast Asian soft terrapin feeds on fish, amphibians, crustaceans, aquatic insects and other invertebrates inhabiting the water (2), but it also scavenges on land, where it will consume fruits and seeds (6).

Each year, the Southeast Asian softshell terrapin nests three or four times (4). On each occasion, young females may lay between six and ten eggs, while older females may lay up to thirty eggs (2). The thinly-shelled, spherical eggs are laid in nests dug in mud banks and incubated for 60 to 145 days (2) (4). Both the eggs and hatchlings of this turtle are known to be preyed upon by monitor lizards (Varanus species), crows (Corvus species), and serpent eagles (Spilornis cheela) (6).

Like many turtles of Asia, this Vulnerable species is intensely hunted for its meat. Large numbers are captured for local consumption by people living in rural areas, while regional networks of hunters and traders also work to supply restaurants and international markets (6). For example, in Indonesia, where the largely Muslim population do not eat turtles, the soft terrapin is exported to China (6). This turtle is also exploited for its eggs and for use in traditional medicines (4), and young turtles are taken for the pet trade (6). This exploitation has led to the Southeast Asian soft terrapin becoming rare in both Vietnam and Malaysia (4). Exacerbating the threat of exploitation is the impact of habitat destruction, with wetland drainage, pollution, and the construction of reservoirs and flood defence structures, all adding to this species threatened status (4) (6).

The future of the Southeast Asian soft terrapin is offered some security through its large range and occurrence in numerous protected areas (1), such as Ngengpui Wildlife Sanctuary, India; Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia and Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam (6). Despite this, populations of this turtle are still declining and it is important that conservation measures are quickly commenced (4).

For further information on the conservation of Asian turtles see:

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  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)