Vertebrate fauna of SE Asia


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Text and photos by Nick Baker, unless credited to others.
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Turtles of Southeast Asia  

Conservation links & documents:  
IUCN - Marine Turtle Specialist Group
IUCN - Tortoise & Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group
Asian Turtle Program

Sea Turtle Research Unit, Malaysia
Turtle Survival Alliance
Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia
Lang Tengah Turtle Watch

Conservation of Asian Tortoises & Freshwater Turtles: pdf


Turtles, terrapins and tortoises, or chelonians (Order : Testudines), include some of the world's most endangered species.  For centuries the larger species have been exploited for their shells, meat and eggs.  In Southeast Asia, turtles range in size from small, secretive terrapins hiding in muddy, forest streams to huge, ocean-going leatherbacks up to 2.5 metres in length. There are around 350 species of chelonian alive today, of which 70 or so occur in Southeast Asia.


Sea Turtles  (Dermochelyidae, Cheloniidae)   SE Asia: 5 species (worldwide 7 species)

Globally 7 species of sea turtle are recognised, of which 5 are known to nest in Southeast Asia.  The other 2 species are the Flatback Turtle, which only nests in Australia (although its feeding grounds do extend into eastern Indonesia), and Kemp's Ridley Turtle which only occurs in the western Atlantic Ocean. All 7 species are categorised as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.  Examples:

        Other SE Asia species :
Lepidochelys olivacea - Olive Ridley Turtle
Leatherback Turtle
Dermochelys coriacea 
  Loggerhead Turtle
Caretta caretta
  Green Turtle
Chelonia mydas
  Hawksbill Turtle
Eretmochelys imbricata 

Land Tortoises  (Testudinidae)   SE Asia: 5 species (worldwide ~60 species)

As of 2020, there are 60 species of land tortoise recognised worldwide, the majority of which occur in relatively dry, semi-arid, open habitats such as deserts and grasslands. Within Southeast Asia there are just 5 species, which are adapted a variety of habitats including humid, forested habitats, and cooler temperatures in lower montane forest.  Examples:

      Other SE Asia species :
Geochelone platynota - Burmese Star Tortoise
Indotestudo forstenii - Celebes Tortoise
Elongated Tortoise
Indotestudo elongata 
  Asian Brown Tortoise
Manouria emys   
Impressed Tortoise
Manouria impressa   

Asian Hard-shell Terrapins  (Geoemydidae)   SE Asia: ~40 species (worldwide ~70 species)

Geoemydidae is the most speciose of turtle families with, as of 2020, around 40 species of 14 genera occurring in Southeast Asia. These are aquatic or semi- freshwater turtles, but some inhabit shaded, humid forest. Many species are referred to as terrapins.  In recent years DNA sequencing has revealed hidden diversity in this group - for example the Cyclemys leaf terrapins are now treated as 6 separate species.   Examples:

      Other SE Asia species :
Batagur affinis - Southern River Terrapin
Batagur baska - Northern River Terrapin
Batagur borneoensis - Painted Terrapin
Batagur kachuga - Red-crowned Roofed Turtle
Batagur trivittata - Burmese Roofed Turtle

Cuora bourreti - Bourret's Box Turtle
Cuora cyclornata - Three-striped Box Turtle
Cuora galbinifrons - Indochinese Box Turtle
Cuora mouhotii - Keeled Box Turtle
Cuora picturata - Southern Vietnamese Box Turtle

Cyclemis atripons - Black-Bridged Leaf Turtle
Cyclemis fusca - Burmese Brown Leaf Turtle
Cyclemis pulchristriata - Eastern Black-bridged Leaf Turtle

Geomyda spengleri - Black-breasted Leaf Turtle

Heosemys depressa - Arakan Forest Turtle

Leucocephalon yuwonoi - Sulawesi Forest Turtle

Malayemys khoratensis - Khorat Snail-eating Turtle
Malayemys subtrijuga - Snail-eating Turtle

Mauremys annamensis - Vietnamese Pond Turtle
Mauremys mutica - Yellow Pond Turtle
Mauremys nigricans - Chinese Red-necked Turtle
Mauremys reevesii - Reeves' Turtle

Melanochelys trijuga - Indian Black Turtle

Morenia ocellata - Burmese Eyed Turtle

Sacalia bealei - Beal's Eyed Turtle
Sacalia quadriocellata - Four-eyed Turtle

Siebenrockiella leytensis - Philippine Forest Turtle
Malayan Box Terrapin
Cuora amboinensis
  Asian Leaf Terrapin
Cyclemys dentata
  Dark-bellied Leaf Terrapin
Cyclemys enigmatica
Oldham's Leaf Terrapin
Cyclemys oldhami
Yellow-headed Temple Turtle
Heosemys annandalii
Giant Leaf Terrapin
Heosemys grandis
Spiny Terrapin
Heosemys spinosa
Malayan Snail-eating Turtle Malayemys macrocephala
Chinese Stripe-necked Terrapin  Mauremys sinensis
Malayan Flat-shelled Terrapin
Notochelys platynota
Malayan Giant Terrapin
Orlitia borneensis   
  Black Marsh Terrapin
Siebenrockiella crassicollis

Big-headed Turtle  (Platysternidae)    Worldwide 1 species only

The unique Big-headed Turtle (Platysternon megacephalum) is the only member of the family Platysternidae: it is included in the superfamily Testudinoidea, which also includes the Testudinidae (land tortoises), Geoemydidae (Asian hard-shelled terrapins) and Emydidae (new world terrapins). It occurs in rivers and streams in southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. This small turtle has a head so large it cannot be withdrawn into its shell.

Big-headed Turtle
Platysternon megacephalum 

Softshell Turtles  (Trionychidae)  SE Asia: ~15 species (worldwide ~30 species)

Softshell turtles lack hard, rigid scales or scutes - instead they possess a pliable, leathery carapace. Thus, they are flatter and less domed than hard-shell terrapins, which allows them to more easily submerge and to lie undetected on muddy or silty substrates. They have long necks, and elongated nostrils which can be discretely extended above the water's surface to breathe. Around half of the world's softshell turtles occur within Southeast Asia.  Examples:

      Other SE Asia species :
Chitra chitra - Asian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle
Chitra vandijki - Burmese Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle

Lissemys punctata - Indian Flap-shelled Turtle
Lissemys scutata - Burmese Flap-shelled Turtle

Nilssonia formosa - Burmese Softshell Turtle

Palea steindachneri - Wattle-necked Softshell Turtle

Pelochelys cantorii - Asian Giant Softshell Turtle

Pelodiscus sinensis - Chinese Softshell Turtle
Pelodiscus variegatus - Vietnam Softshell Turtle

Rafetus swinhoei - Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle
Asiatic Softshell Turtle
Amyda cartilaginea
  Ornate Softshell Turtle
Amyda ornata
Malayan Softshell Turtle
Dogania subplana
Chinese softshell turtles
Pelodiscus spp.

Snake-necked Turtles (Chelidae)  SE Asia (including southern New Guinea): 5 species (worldwide 16 species)

Snake-necked turtles, of the genus Chelodina, are an ancient group of specialist fish-eaters whose long necks must be turned sideways to achieve protection beneath the carapace. They are geographically centred on the islands of New Guinea and Australia. The range of four of these extends into the western half of New Guinea (i.e. part of Indonesia), and a fifth species, Chelodina mccordi, occurs on the islands of Roti (Indonesia) and Timor-Leste.  Examples:

  Species from southern and western New Guinea :
Chelodina gunaleni - Gunalen痴 Snake-necked Turtle
Chelodina parkerii - Parker痴 Snake-necked Turtle
Chelodina reimanni - Reimann's Snake-necked Turtle
Chelodina rugosa siebenrocki - Siebenrock痴 Snake-necked Turtle
Roti Is. Snake-necked Turtle
Chelodina mccordi

Pig-nosed Turtles  (Carettochelyidae)   Worldwide 1 species only

The Pig-nosed Turtle (Carettochelys insculpta) is the only species in the Carettochelyidae family. This unique turtle inhabits lowland streams and rivers of southern New Guinea and the Northern Territory of Australia. Their flippers are similar to those of marine turtles, and their carapace is leathery, but their most unusual feature is their pig-like snout. They are illegally traded, and released pets are sometimes encountered, for example in Singapore.

Pig-nosed Turtle
Carettochelys insculpta

Commonly-released new world turtles  (Emydidae)

Turtles of the family Emydidae, which hail from the Americas, are widely available in the international pet trade. They are typically purchased as small, brightly-patterned juveniles, but as they grow larger and their juvenile colours fade they are often released into streams, rivers and lakes, particularly in urban areas. Their eggs and hatchlings are easy prey for predators or scavengers, particularly the Malayan Water Monitor.  Examples:


Cuban Slider
Trachemys decussata
  Red-eared Slider
Trachemys scripta elegans