Central American River Turtle

Description and biology

The Central American river turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in its range. An average adult measures 24 inches (61 centimeters) long and weighs almost 50 pounds (23 kilograms). The turtle has webbed feet, forcing it to move awkwardly on land.

Because of this, the Central American river turtle does not bask in the sunlight on logs or river banks like other freshwater turtles. It occasionally floats on the water’s surface and is able to remain underwater for long periods without surfacing for air.

This species of turtle is primarily nocturnal (active at night), remaining inactive during the day until twilight. It feeds on aquatic plants and fallen leaves and fruit. Otters are its main predators.

In April and December, after having mated, a female Central American river turtle digs a hole in sand, clay, or mud within a few feet of the water’s edge. She then lays a clutch (eggs produced at one time) of 6 to 16 hard–shelled eggs.

Habitat and current distribution

The Central American river turtle is found only in the coastal lowlands of the western Caribbean. Its range extends from the Mexican state of Veracruz southeast through Guatemala and Belize.

The turtle is not found on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Biologists (people who study living organisms) are unable to estimate the total number of Central American river turtles currently in existence.

Central American river turtles inhabit large, open rivers and permanent lakes. Although they prefer clear freshwater, the turtles are sometimes found in brackish water (mixture of salt water and freshwater).

History and conservation measures

The main threat to the Central American river turtle is hunting by humans. The turtle is very easy to catch and both its meat and eggs are valued by people in its range. Although large populations of the turtle remain in Belize, it is hunted in great numbers.

In the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, newly built roads have opened up formerly remote areas, giving hunters greater access to turtle populations.

Restrictions on the hunting of the turtles exist, but they are poorly enforced. Programs to raise and manage the Central American river turtle as a food source are currently being studied.