African helmeted turtle

African helmeted turtle
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Suborder: Pleurodira
Family: Pelomedusidae
Genus: Pelomedusa
Wagler, 1830
Species: P. subrufa
Binomial name
Pelomedusa subrufa
(Lacépède, 1788)
  • Testudo planitia Meuschen, 1778
  • Testudo subrufa Lacépède, 1788
  • Testudo galeata Schoepff, 1792
  • Testudo badia Donndorff, 1798
  • Testudo rubicunda Suckow, 1798
  • Emys galeata Schweigger, 1812
  • Emys olivacea Schweigger, 1812
  • Emys subrufa Schweigger, 1812
  • Hydraspis galeata Bell, 1828
  • Pelomedusa galeata Wagler, 1830
  • Pelomedusa subrufa Wagler, 1830
  • Chelys (Hydraspis) subrufa Gray, 1831
  • Hydraspis subrufa Gray, 1831
  • Pentonyx capensis Duméril & Bibron, 1835
  • Pentonyx galeata Duméril & Bibron, 1835
  • Emys (Emys) capensis Fitzinger, 1835
  • Hydraspis (Pelomedusa) galeata Fitzinger, 1835
  • Hydraspis (Pelomedusa) olivacea Fitzinger, 1835
  • Hydraspis (Pelomedusa) planitia Fitzinger, 1835
  • Pentonyx gehafie Rüppell, 1835
  • Pelomedusa gehafiae Gray, 1844 (ex errore)
  • Pentonyx americana Cornalia, 1849
  • Pelomedusa mossambicensis Peters, 1856 (nomen nudum)
  • Pelomedusa mozambica Peters, 1856 (nomen nudum)
  • Pelomedusa nigra Gray, 1863
  • Pelomedusa gasconi Rochebrune, 1884
  • Pelomedusa galeata damarensis Hewitt, 1935
  • Pelomedusa galeata devilliersi Hewitt, 1935
  • Pelomedusa galeata galeata Hewitt, 1935
  • Pelomedusa galeata nigra Hewitt, 1935
  • Pelomedusa galeata orangensis Hewitt, 1935
  • Pelomedusa galeata subrufa Hewitt, 1935
  • Pelomedusa galeata gehafie Parker, 1936
  • Pelomedusa subrufa subrufa Mertens, 1937
  • Pelomedusa subrufa damarensis Mertens, 1937
  • Pelomedusa subrufa gehafie Mertens, 1937
  • Pelomedusa subrufa wettsteini Mertens, 1937
  • Pelomedusa subrufa orangensis Hewitt, 1937
  • Pelomedusa subrufa olivacea Loveridge, 1941
  • Pelomedusa subrufa damaranus Heck, 1955 (ex errore)
  • Pelomedusa subrufa nigra Bour, 1986

The African helmeted turtle (Pelomedusa subrufa), also known as the marsh terrapin, crocodile turtle, or in the pet trade as African side-necked turtle, is an omnivorous side-necked terrapin that naturally occurs in fresh and stagnant water bodies throughout much of Sub-Saharan Africa, and even in southern Yemen.


Side view of a captive specimen, showing claws and lighter underside

The Marsh Terrapin is typically a rather small turtle, with most individuals being less than 20 cm in carapace length, but one has been recorded with a carapace length of 32.5 cm. It has a black or brown carapace (shell). The tops of the tail and limbs are a grayish brown, while the underside is yellowish.

The male turtle is distinguished by its long, thick tail. A female tends to have a shorter tail and a broader carapace. A hatchling has a shell size of about 1.2 inches in length, and is olive to black in color. It also has two small tubercles under the chin and musk glands in the sides of the carapace.

Uniquely, Pelomedusa does not have a hinged plastron (lower shell). All the other species in the family Pelomedusidae, however, have this feature which they can, using muscles, close to cover their heads and front limbs. Unlike many chelonians, African helmeted turtles are able, when they find themselves upside down, to right themselves with a vigorous flick from their long muscular necks.[2]

Recent genetic research suggests that Pelomedusa comprises at least 10 different species, and not only one as previously thought. In the past the physical differences between populations were not regarded as substantial enough to recognise more than one species.[3]


The range of P. subrufa covers a large portion of Africa, from the Cape Peninsula to the Sudan. It can be found as far west as Ghana and as far south as Cape Town. It has also been found in Madagascar and Yemen.[4]

Life history

Adult specimen running down a lake embankment
Juvenile marsh terrapin


They are semiaquatic animals, living in rivers, lakes, and marshes, and they also occupy rain pools and places that are fertilized.

Their preference seems to be for standing water, such as swamps, pans, dams and lakes. However they are found to a lesser extent along rivers. They are generally absent from regions that are mountainous, forested or desert.[5]


The African helmeted turtle is omnivorous and will eat almost anything. Some of the main items in its diet are insects, small crustaceans, fish, tadpoles, earthworms, snails and vegetation. It may also feed on carrion. The fine claws on its feet help it tear its prey apart.

Groups of these turtles have been observed capturing and drowning larger prey such as doves when they come to drink; the commotion caused by these group attacks are often mistaken for crocodiles. All food is taken underwater to be eaten.[6]

Several large mammals such as warthogs, Cape buffalo and Rhinoceroses have recently been documented utilizing the turtles to remove parasites at popular wallowing holes. One such incident in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi park involved two African helmeted turtles removing ticks and blood-sucking flies from the body of a wallowing warthog. Though the turtles probably do not have a symbiotic relationship with these animals, it is very likely that the buffalo, rhinos and warthogs seek them out and have learned to utilize them from past experiences. This behavior was documented for the first time in the September 2015 issue of Herpetological Review by Andy and Michelle Leighty Jones.[7]

Seasonal movements

During wet weather these terrapins will often leave their water bodies and embark on long overland journeys. During exceptionally dry weather when their water bodies dry up, they will typically dig themselves into the ground and bury themselves until rains return; they have been known to spend months or even years in such a state. They will also hibernate during very cold weather, and aestivate during unusually hot, dry weather.


Courtship is held year round. The male will follow the female, nodding his head in front of hers. If she is not responsive, she will nip and snap and walk away. If she is willing, she responses by nodding her head or just standing still, so he can sit onto her. While mating both of the turtles shake their head.

The female will lay two to ten eggs on average, normally during late spring and early summer. The eggs are placed in a flask-shaped nest about 4 to 7 in deep. The eggs hatch in 75– 90 days.[8]


African side-necked turtles are popular as a pet because of their unusual head tucking behavior.


  1. Fritz Uwe; Peter Havaš (2007). "Checklist of Chelonians of the World" (PDF). Vertebrate Zoology. 57 (2): 344–346. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2010-12-17. Retrieved 29 May 2012.
  2. E.H.W. Baard: Cape Tortoises: Their identification and care. Cape Nature Conservation. 1994.
  3. Fritz, Uwe; Alice Petzold; Christian Kehlmaier; Carolin Kindler; Patrick Cambell; Margaretha D. Hofmeyr; & William R. Branch. (2014). Disentangling the Pelomedusa complex using type specimens and historical DNA (Testudines: Pelomedusidae). Zootaxa 3795(5): 501%u2013522
  4. BBranch, B. Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles of Africa. Capetown: Struik Publishers. 2001. ISBN 978-1770074637
  5. R. Boycott, O. Bourquin The South African Tortoise Book. Johannesburg: Southern Book Publishers. 1988. p.60.
  6. "Crocodile turtle or African helmeted turtle". Snakes-n-Scales. Retrieved 4 May 2014.
  8. Orenstein, R. Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins: A Natural History. ISBN 1770851194
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