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African Side-Necked Turtles: Pelomedusidae

Helmeted Turtle (pelomedusa Subrufa): Species Account

Physical characteristics: Adult helmeted turtles have upper shells that reach 13 inches (33 centimeters) in length. The brown to greenish-brown upper shell is fairly flat. The lower shell is usually yellow or cream-colored, sometimes with dark seams or large, dark smudges. The lower neck is also yellow or cream-colored. These turtles have a rather pointed face with a mouth that looks as if it is set in a permanent grin. Males and females look alike, except that males have longer tails and concave, or indented, lower shells. Males may have red spots or white coloration on their heads during mating season.

Helmeted turtles are mostly meat eaters, feeding on worms, snails and clams, insects and other small invertebrates, fishes, frogs, and whatever dead animals they can find. (Illustration by Barbara Duperron. Reproduced by permission.)

Geographic range: Helmeted turtles inhabit Madagascar, southern Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and central to southern Africa.

Habitat: Helmeted turtles can be found in various water bodies, including ponds, marshes, and streams that are filled with water all year long and temporary ponds that dry up from time to time. They move from water site to water site during the year, so they are often seen on land.

Diet: Like other side-necked turtles, helmeted turtles are mostly meat eaters, feeding on worms; snails and clams; insects and other small invertebrates (in-VER-teh-brehts), or animals without backbones; fishes; frogs; and whatever dead animals they can find. They also eat small reptiles and mammals. They are some of the only reptiles that will band together and hunt as a pack to catch, drown, and tear apart birds, mammals, and other reptiles. An occasional piece of fruit or water-living plant rounds out the diet.

Behavior and reproduction: Except those individuals that live in the hottest of climates, these turtles spend much of the day basking near the shoreline. They are also noticeable when they are moving from water body to water body. The young will eat all day long and into the night, but the adults tend to feed only in the early morning or early evening hours. When the weather is too dry, they will bury themselves in the mud until the rains come. This period of inactivity in dry weather, which is called estivation (es-tuh-VAY-shun), can last for months. In the cooler areas where they live, they hibernate by finding a spot under leaves or below ground to wait out the winter.

Mating usually happens in the spring. During courtship, a male will chase a female, touching and sometimes nipping at her back legs and tail; bob his head from side to side; and shoot water out of his nostrils. The females lay one set of thirteen to forty eggs every year (fewer than twenty eggs is typical) in a nest that is sometimes set among rocks. The outside temperature determines the number of male and female young in the clutch. Especially warm or cool temperatures will produce more females, while moderate temperatures yield males.

Helmeted turtles and people: Although people frequently see this common turtle, it does not usually notice or mind their presence, even sometimes entering and making good use of man-made ponds. Some people eat helmeted turtles or drain their blood for folk medicines; a few become pets. These practices have not affected the survival of the species.

Conservation status: The helmeted turtle is not threatened. ∎



Boycott, R. C., and O. Bourquin. The Southern African Tortoise Book: A Guide to Southern African Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles. KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: privately printed, 2000.

Branch, B. Field Guide to the Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa. Cape Town, South Africa: Struik Publishers, 1998.

Burnie, David, and Don E. Wilson, eds. Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2001.

Spawls, S., K. Howell, R. Drewes, and J. Ashe. A Field Guide to the Reptiles of East Africa. San Diego: Academic Press, 2002.

Web sites:

"Pelomedusa subrufa." ETI—Turtles of the World. http://www.eti.uva.nl/Turtles/Turtles3a.html (accessed on July 27, 2004).

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceDinosaurs, Snakes, and Other ReptilesAfrican Side-Necked Turtles: Pelomedusidae - Physical Characteristics, Diet, Behavior And Reproduction, Conservation Status, Helmeted Turtle (pelomedusa Subrufa): Species Account - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE, HABITAT, AFRICAN SIDE-NECKED TURTLES AND PEOPLE