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Know about Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises of India

Star Tortoise

Introduction

India is renowned for its extraordinary biological diversity, encompassing a wide range of ecosystems, habitats, and species. The country is home to several distinct biodiversity hotspots, including the Western Ghats, the Eastern Himalayas, the Indo-Burma region, and the Sundaland (including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands). These hotspots are characterized by high levels of species richness and endemism, making them globally significant areas for conservation efforts aimed at preserving India’s unique biodiversity.

In terms of freshwater turtle and tortoise diversity, India boasts a diverse assemblage of these reptiles, with a total of approximately 30 species identified within its borders. J.B. Iverson’s article “Global Correlates of Species Richness in Turtles” published in 1992 highlights India’s exceptional turtle diversity, identifying the country as possessing the richest turtle diversity globally. Freshwater turtles and tortoises play crucial ecological roles in India’s aquatic ecosystems, contributing to nutrient cycling and maintaining ecosystem balance. However, many species face threats such as habitat loss, pollution, and illegal wildlife trade, highlighting the need for effective conservation measures to safeguard their populations.

Northeast India, located within the Eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspot, stands out as a hotspot of turtle and tortoise diversity within the country. Out of the approximately 30 species found in India, Northeast India alone is home to 21 species of turtles and tortoises. This region encompasses diverse habitats ranging from mountain streams and rivers to wetlands and plains, providing ideal conditions for various turtle and tortoise species. Conservation efforts in Northeast India are crucial to protect this rich diversity of turtles and tortoises, which are under increasing pressure from anthropogenic activities and habitat degradation.

Freshwater Turtles and Tortoise can be classified into three major headings:

 

Softshell & Flapshell Turtles

Trionychidae, commonly known as softshell turtles, comprises one of the largest and most diverse turtle families, encompassing approximately 12 to 15 genera and an estimated 25 to 30 species. The taxonomy within Trionychidae can vary, with some species occasionally considered subspecies or subpopulations of others. These unique turtles are distributed across Africa, North America, and Asia, with a few instances of sightings suggesting possible dispersal from New Guinea, though no established wild populations have been confirmed in Australia.

Softshell turtles, as their name suggests, possess a distinctive soft and leathery upper shell (carapace) instead of the typical hard, bony shells found in most turtles. They are primarily found in freshwater and brackish water bodies with soft, muddy substrates, such as rivers, streams, and lakes with slow-moving water. Notably, giant softshell turtles are adapted to inhabit areas with strong currents.

Trionychids are highly aquatic and rarely bask on land, typically only coming ashore to lay eggs. They are carnivorous omnivores, with diets consisting mainly of animal foods such as frogs, fish, mollusks, insects, and crustaceans, occasionally supplemented with plant matter.The family Trionychidae was formally described and named by the Austrian biologist Leopold Fitzinger in 1826, highlighting their long-standing recognition in scientific taxonomy. These fascinating turtles play essential roles in their aquatic ecosystems, but many species face threats from habitat degradation, pollution, and exploitation. Conservation efforts are crucial to protect the biodiversity and ecological significance of softshell turtles and ensure their continued survival in their diverse habitats worldwide.

 

Lissemys punctata is popular as a pet.

 

In India there are 8 Species of Softshell & Flapshell Turtles are found:

S. No. Name Scientific name IUCN Category CITES
1. Asiatic softshell turtle Amyda cartilaginea VU AII
2. Indian softshell turtle Nilssonia gangetica VU AI
3. Indian peacock softshell turtle Nilssonia hurum VU AI
4. Leith’s softshell turtle Nilssonia leithii VU AII
5. Black softshell turtle Nilssonia nigricans EW AI
6. Indian Narrow-headed softshell turtle Chitra indica EN AII
7. Indian flapshell turtle Lissemys punctata LR AII
8. Asian giant softshell turtle Pelochelys cantorii EN AII

Tortoises

Tortoises belong to the family Testudinidae, embedded within the broader group of turtles, which comprises a total of 13 families. Known as land turtles, tortoises are distributed across all continents except Antarctica and Australia. With nearly 50 species spread across more than 15 genera, tortoises exhibit a wide range of sizes, colors, and features. While many species exist solely in the wild, some are kept as pets. Several tortoise species are considered endangered, but successful conservation efforts have helped boost populations in certain cases. Remarkably, tortoises boast an average lifespan of 80 to 150 years, making them the longest-living terrestrial animals on Earth. Tortoises are ancient creatures, dating back over 230 million years, coexisting with dinosaurs and standing as one of the oldest living animal groups in evolutionary history.

Tortoises are distinguished from other turtles by their unique physical characteristics. The name “tortoise” is derived from the Latin word “tortus,” meaning “twisted,” likely referring to their bent legs—a feature that sets them apart from other turtle species. Their robust limbs are adapted for terrestrial life rather than aquatic, enabling tortoises to spend their entire lives on land.

Characteristic features of tortoises include dome-shaped shells with high arches, which differ from the streamlined shells of sea-dwelling or semi-aquatic turtles. The shell serves as both protection and aids in body temperature regulation and hydration. Tortoises possess column-like hind legs and elephantine front legs suited for movement on solid ground, along with sharp claws for digging burrows and navigating various terrains.

One of the most notable attributes of tortoises is their impressive longevity. Some tortoises have been documented to live up to nearly two centuries. For instance, Harriet, a tortoise collected by Charles Darwin in 1835, lived under the care of wildlife expert Steve Irwin until her passing in 2006, estimated to have lived around 175 years.

Another distinguishing feature is the curvature of the underside of a tortoise’s shell, known as a plastron, which helps differentiate between male and female tortoises. Males typically have a concave plastron that aids in balancing on top of females during mating.

Tortoises exhibit remarkable survival abilities, capable of enduring extended periods without food or water. Historically, they were carried on whaling ships and used as a fresh meat source during long voyages. Tortoises are widespread, inhabiting regions from southern North America to southern South America, across Eurasia to Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean basin, sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, and certain Pacific Islands.

These ancient reptiles, evolving around 220 million years ago, stand as enduring symbols of resilience and adaptation across diverse landscapes and changing environments throughout Earth’s history.

Four species of Tortoises are found in India:

 

Star Tortoise

 

S. No. Name Scientific name IUCN Category CITES
1. Indian star tortoise Geochelone elegans LR
2. Elongated tortoise Indotestudo elongate EN
3. Travancore tortoise Indotestudo travancorica VU
4. Asian Giant tortoise Manouria emys EN

Also Read : Top 5 Migratory Birds in India

Hardshell Turtles (River Terrapin and Roofed Turtle)

The turtle family Geoemydidae represents the largest, most diverse, and yet one of the most poorly understood families of turtles. Comprising 23 genera and approximately 73 species, Geoemydidae is the largest turtle family globally, contributing to about 25% of the total species-level diversity of turtles. Geoemydids are predominantly freshwater aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles, widely distributed across continents from Europe and North Africa to India and southern Russia, and extending further into Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and the Philippines. Despite their broad distribution, much remains unknown about intrafamilial systematics and evolutionary relationships within this diverse group.

Geoemydids are often referred to as ‘‘Old World pond turtles,’’ reflecting their primary habitat preference for freshwater environments like rivers, ponds, marshes, and wetlands. One intriguing exception to this geographic pattern is the genus Rhinoclemmys, found in the New World from Mexico south to Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil, demonstrating a unique transcontinental distribution within the family. These turtles exhibit a range of sizes and shell patterns, from small species like the Japanese pond turtle (Mauremys japonica) to larger turtles like the European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis).

Despite their ecological importance and attractiveness in the pet trade, many Geoemydidae species face significant threats from habitat loss due to human activities, pollution, and overexploitation for food and traditional medicine. Conservation efforts are vital to address these threats and ensure the survival of the diverse Geoemydidae turtles and the health of their freshwater habitats worldwide. Efforts to better understand the systematics and evolutionary history within this family will also contribute to effective conservation strategies for these remarkable turtles.

There are 17 species of Hardshell Turtles are found in India:

 

Closeup shot of two turtles on a tree branch․

 

S. No. Name Scientific name IUCN Category CITES
1. Northern River terrapin Batagur baska CR AI
2. Southeast Asian box turtle Cuoraam boinensis VU AII
3. Oldham’s leaf- turtle Cyclemys oldhami NE AII
4. Asian leaf-turtle Cyclemys dentata LR AII
5. Spotted pond turtle Geoclemys hamiltonii VU AI
6. Cochin forest cane turtle Vijayachelys sylvatica EN AII
7. Crowned river turtle Hardella thurjii VU AII
8. Three-striped roofed turtle Batagur dhongoka EN AII
9. Red – crowned roofed turtle Batagur kachuga CR AII
10. Tricarinate hill turtle Melanochelys tricarinata VU AI
11. Indian black turtle Melanochelys trijuga LR AII
12. Indian eyed turtle Morenia petersi VU AII
13. Brown roofed turtle Pangshura smithii LR AII
14. Assam roofed turtle Pangshura sylhetensis EN AII
15. Indian roofed turtle Pangshura tecta LR AI
16. Indian tent turtle Pangshura tentoria LR AII
17. Keeled box turtle Cuora mouhotii EN AII

Best Places to See Freshwater Turtles in India

National Parks and wildlife sanctuaries in India that are situated along major rivers and diverse water bodies serve as excellent locations for observing turtles. Kaziranga National Park, located in Assam, is renowned for its rich turtle diversity, with the park’s water bodies harboring up to 17 different turtle species. The National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary, situated along the Chambal River in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan, is famous for its population of the critically endangered, Red-crowned roofed turtle (Batagur kachuga) along with several other turtle species. The Western Ghats region and Northeast India are also biodiversity hotspots for turtles, with the Northeast representing an impressive 21 species of turtles and the Western Ghats hosting over 8 species, including three endemic species unique to this region. These areas, characterized by their lush forests, rivers, and wetlands, provide ideal habitats for various turtle species and offer opportunities for wildlife enthusiasts and researchers to study and appreciate India’s diverse turtle fauna.

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