GreenTracks Amazon Tours and Cruises

Turtles in the Amazon

Turtles have roamed the earth, on land, in the sea, and in freshwater, for better than 225 million years.  Protected by a shell, a bony shield made by modified ribs, the turtle is a monument to a successful design for living.  They - turtles-tortoises-terrapins - have changed but little during their long occupation of the planet. Modern studies have revealed them to be a sister group to the birds and crocodilians (Archosauria).

Turtles are cold-blooded, and they lay eggs on land. They range in size from the monstrous, six-foot, 2,000 lb. Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) to a tiny African tortoise at four inches and only five ounces in weight.  Turtles are classed into two groups that are distinct because of the way they withdraw their heads, either straight back or else curved to one side.  Most species possess a hard shell, and most are further protected by plates and scales on the head and extremities. The shell itself plays an important physiologic role in chemical balance during hibernation, among other things.  Living inside a shell makes for some special adaptations, particularly in the realm of breathing. Some turtles can breathe underwater through their vents.  Owing to a high number of rods in the eye, turtles are thought to have excellent night vision.  They also perceive a broad range of color, including borderline ultraviolet light. Some species have a considerable range of vocalizations.

The turtle world is well represented in the Amazon and the region of the basin in which we spend our time has at least twelve species and four families.  Roaming the rainforest floor is the Yellow-footed Tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulata) which, in older times, reached over a hundred pounds. Much persecuted as a valuable source of meat, today it is rare to see a specimen weighing much over fifteen pounds.  Its cousin the Red-footed Tortoise (C. carbonaria) is just south of us and is much smaller.

A small water turtle representing a primarily northern family is the Amazon Mud Turtle (Kinosternon scorpioides scorpioides).  In this species the shell is somewhat flexible and the head can be retracted all the way in. Mud turtles spend most of their lives walking about on the bottom in small ponds and other areas of sluggish water where they feed on small fishes and insect matter.

The bizarre Mata Mata (Chelus fimbriata) is easily the strangest looking turtle in the world.  It is well disguised as a pile of dead leaves and it vacuums unsuspecting fishes into its yawning mouth. Seldom leaving the water, Mata Matas live in the shallower portions of rivers and oxbow lakes. The range includes all of the Orinoco and Amazon basins.

The Western Twist-necked Turtle (Platemys platycephala melanonota) is a beautiful resident of rainforest streams in non-flooded forest.  They spend most of their time in the water but occasionally can be found walking about, especially during heavy rains.

Greater and Lesser and Amazon Toad-headed Turtles (Mesoclemmys “raniceps,” M. gibba, and M. heliostemma) are fairly common, nocturnal denizens of ponds and streams in the upper Amazon.  They feed upon crustaceans and insects. The related Striped Toad-headed Turtle Phrynops geoffroanus leads a similar life.  The gorgeous Red Toad-headed Turtle (Rhinemys rufipes) lives in blackwater forest streams.

River Turtles in the area range from the enormous Podocnemis expansa and Peltocephalus dumeriliana to Podocnemis unifilis and P. sextuberculata.  All occupy oxbow lakes and rivers where they consume a considerable amount of plant matter but also fishes.

Here we share a few images of turtles and turtle-related activity from the upper Amazon Basin:

South American (or Giant) River Turtle (Podocnemis expansa)
The South American (or Giant) River Turtle (Podocnemis expansa) is a huge creature that once dominated the rivers of Amazonia. Much persecuted for its eggs and meat, today this magnificent creature is endangered.


Western Twist-necked Turtle (Platemys platycephala melanonota)
The Western Twist-necked Turtle (Platemys platycephala melanonota) is a small and colorful dweller of forest streams in the Upper Amazon Basin.


Western Twist-necked Turtle (Platemys platycephala melanonota)
Western Twist-necked Turtle (Platemys platycephala melanonota).
Turtles in the suborder Pleurodira are distinguished by the
way they retract their heads: sideways.


Western Twist-necked Turtle (Platemys platycephala melanonota)
The Western Twist-necked Turtle (Platemys platycephala melanonota) is active during the day. At night it sleeps at the bottom of clear shallow pools in rainforest streams.


Western Twist-necked Turtle (Platemys platycephala melanonota)
The Western Twist-necked Turtle (Platemys platycephala melanonota), with intense orange to yellow pigment on the head, is one of the most colorful of the Amazon’s turtles.


Amazon Mud Turtle (Kinosternon scorpioides scorpioides)
A small water turtle representing a primarily northern family is the Amazon Mud Turtle (Kinosternon scorpioides scorpioides).  In this species the shell is somewhat flexible and the head can be retracted all the way in. Mud turtles spend most of their lives walking about on the bottom in small ponds and other areas of sluggish water where they feed on small fishes and insect matter.


Amazon (or Six-tubercled) River Turtle (Podocnemis sextuberculata)
The Amazon (or Six-tubercled) River Turtle (Podocnemis sextuberculata) is so named owing to the presence of six prominent bony bumps on the plastron (belly).


Amazon (or Six-tubercled) River Turtle (Podocnemis sextuberculata)
Amazon (or Six-tubercled) River Turtle (Podocnemis sextuberculata)


Amazon River Turtle (Podocnemis sextuberculata)
Like most aquatic turtles, the Amazon River Turtle (Podocnemis sextuberculata) has nostrils situated at the tip of the snout so that it can breath without exposing itself unduly to predators.


Yellow-footed Tortoises (Chelonoidis denticulata)
The Yellow-footed Tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulata) is an important source of protein for Amazonian peoples. Not only does a large turtle provide meat, but also it can be tethered for long periods before harvesting. Since most of the Amazon Basin lacks electricity and refrigeration, this is a critical characteristic.



Yellow-footed Tortoises (Chelonoidis denticulata)
Yellow-footed Tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulata) juvenile.


Yellow-footed Tortoises (Chelonoidis denticulata)
Old Male Yellow-footed Tortoises (Chelonoidis denticulata) These tortoises are not only sought after as a food source but also as pets. In areas where there are few humans this terrestrial turtle may be the most abundant vertebrate in the Amazon rainforest.


Yellow-spotted River Turtles (Podocnemis unifilis)
The Yellow-spotted River Turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) is a moderately large aquatic turtle that once was abundant but now is reduced to wildlife reserves and remote stretches of Amazonian rivers.


Yellow-spotted River Turtles (Podocnemis unifilis)
Yellow-spotted River Turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) start life with a tan to olive dorsal color and brilliant yellow spots on the head. Gradually, the ground color darkens, being nearly black in some species.


Lesser Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys gibba)
The Lesser Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys gibba) ranges widely through the Amazon and Orinoco basins where it leads a secretive, nocturnal life in ponds and forest streams.



Lesser Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys gibba)
The Lesser Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys gibba) feeds on small insects and mollusks that it finds by night in palm swamps, rainforest streams and ponds. When captured it emits an offensive odor which has given rise to colorful local names.


Lesser Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys gibba)
Lesser Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys gibba)


Greater Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys “raniceps”)
The Greater Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys “raniceps”) feeds primarily upon freshwater shrimp and snails and has an enormously wide head and mouth.


Greater Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys “raniceps”)
The Greater Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys “raniceps”) lives in puddles, rainforest streams and ponds in the upper Amazon Basin. It is nocturnal and secretive. Old adults often have a reddish tinge and this turtle emits a foul smell when threatened.


Matamata (Chelus fimbriata)
The Matamata (Chelus fimbriata) is easily the most bizarre turtle in the world. It ranges widely across the Amazon and Orinoco basins and Trinidad. Adapted for a life under water, this strange creature ambushes fish by vacuuming them into its cavernous mouth.


Lesser Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys gibba)
The Lesser Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys gibba), like most of its close relatives, possesses a pair of barbels on the chin. Presumably, these are enervated and provide the turtle with information.


Lesser Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys gibba)
The Lesser Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys gibba) ranges in color from tan to yellowish brown to nearly black. It often can be found in isolated rainforest pools in the Amazon and Orinoco basins.


Amazon Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys heliostemma)
The Amazon Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys heliostemma) is known only from the central and western Amazon Basin. Secretive and nocturnal, little is known about its natural history. Old adults tend to be blackish overall, but juveniles often have bright orange to yellow markings on the head.


Yellow-spotted River Turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) laying eggs.
Yellow-spotted River Turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) laying eggs.


South American river turtles (Podocnemis)
Head-starting South American river turtles (Podocnemis sp.) is a valued method for reducing egg poaching. Eggs are collected on nesting beaches and then incubated under supervision.


baby river turtles (Podocnemis)
Upon hatching, baby river turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) emerge covered with sand and ready to enter the water.


Gathering hatching South American River Turtles (Podocnemis expansa)
Gathering hatching South American River Turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) for release.


Podocnemis unifilis hatchling.
Podocnemis unifilis hatchling.



hundreds of baby river turtles (Podocnemis)
At hatching, hundreds of baby river turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) are gathered into buckets for release back into the rivers.


Hatchling South American River Turtles (Podocnemis sp.)
Hatchling South American River Turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) scramble about in a bucket prior to being released in the river.


South American River Turtles (Podocnemis expansa)
The journey to the water and survival once there are perilous for hatchling South American River Turtles (Podocnemis unifilis).



South American River Turtles (Podocnemis expansa)
As tiny South American River Turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) make their way across the sand, they are preyed upon by herons, hawks, iguanas, tegus, and a host of other animals.



Hatchling Yellow-spotted River Turtles (Podocnemis unifilis)
Hatchling Yellow-spotted River Turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) are brightly marked with spots that resemble a popular kind of hot pepper grown in the Amazon Basin of Peru.


Yellow-spotted River Turtle (Podocnemis unifilis)
The Yellow-spotted River Turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) to the left is unusually marked while the one to the right is typical. These beautiful turtles are exploited for meat,eggs, and the pet trade although they now enjoy some degree of protection.


River turtles (Podocnemis)
River turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) are active by day and they bask on exposed branches much like turtles seen in northern climes.


Amazon Herping Tour
Our Fifth Annual
Amazon Herping Trip