Giant South American River Turtle

Podocnemis expansa

Scientific Name

Giant South American River Turtle:  
Podocnemis expansa

Distribution and Habitat

Geographic Range

Found in the Amazon River drainage of South America, as far south as northern Brazil, northern Peru, and the Islands of Trinidad and Tobago.

Natural Habitat

Freshwater rivers with sandy banks or sandbars, which are crucial for nesting.

Physical Characteristics

  • Giant South American River Turtles are the largest river turtle in South America, with great sexual dimorphism by size. Adults can reach 42 inches in length and weigh up to 198 pounds.

  • They have a long neck which can be withdrawn horizontally within the shell.

  • They have a long neck which can be withdrawn horizontally within the shell. This leaves it partially exposed, rather than retracting it in a vertical “S” bend as in most other turtle species. Their head is broad with a protruding snout and an upper jaw which is neither notched nor rounded, but squared off.

  • Their color may be influenced by the algae that is attached to their shell, ranging from olive green to brown.

Quick Facts

  1. Giant South American River Turtles are currently considered “Conservation Dependent”

  2. Mutual cleaning behavior between these turtles is practiced. They will pull the algae off of each other’s shells with their beaks.

  3. The sex of the turtle is dependent of the temperature of their nest. There is one male for every 30 females among the newborn. The colder the temperature, the more males will be hatched.

  4. Beaches in South America are protected by the National Guard for the safety of giant South American river turtle eggs and babies.


Amphibian and Reptile Center

Conservation Status

Least Concern: The Giant South American River Turtle is common or abundant and is likely to survive in the wild.

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Giant South American River Turtles feed primarily on vegetation in the flooded forests, swamps and lagoons during high waters. They are also frugivores, feeding on various fruits and seeds of the flooded forest trees. During the dry season, they have been known to fast.