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Central American River Turtle

Central American River Turtle

Dermatemys mawii

Status Endangered
Listed June 22, 1983
Family Dermatemydidae (Turtle)
Description Shell 12-24 in (30-60 cm) long, olive green above and yellowish below; the head is speckled on the sides.
Habitat Low elevation rivers; does not require logs, rocks, etc., for basking sites.
Food Aquatic plant matter and vegetation that is within reach just above the water level.
Reproduction Nests during flooding season; clutch of 20 eggs.
Threats Commercial meat trade; loss of food supply.
Range Belize, Guatemala, Mexico


The Central American river turtle, Dermatemys mawii, has a very short tail and a wide plastron which is connected to the upper part of the shell by a wide bridge. Adult shells are about 12-24 in (30-60 cm) long and are an olive green color above and a yellowish color below. The scutes are thin and are easily worn away; if the bone is exposed it can also be damaged. This turtle's head is speckled on the sides. Anatomical features make movement on land extremely difficult for this species. This species is almost entirely aquatic, generally only leaving the water to lay their eggs. Nesting occurs during the wet season when flooding carries or allows the turtles to move into backwater areas or small tributaries. Eggs are buried in the banks just above the water level. Clutch sizes are an average of 20 eggs. D. mawii is also referred to by the common name "tortuga blanca " which means white turtle in Spanish. The Mexicans, when giving the turtle this name, were referring to the species' white meat which is considered a delicacy by many locals.


Adults are primarily herbivorous, consuming aquatic plant matter and vegetation that falls in or is within their reach just above the water; hatchlings and juveniles are more omnivorous. Individuals can be observed basking (floating in the water) on sunny days.


D. mawii is an aquatic species which inhabits low elevation rivers along the coasts of Belize, Guatemala, and southern Mexico. This turtle does not require logs, rocks, etc., for basking sites; it prefers to bask by floating in the water. Individuals have been observed with barnacles on their shells so brackish habitats may be used to some extent.


D. mawii is only found in the coastal lowlands of southern Mexico (including the state of Tabasco), northern Guatemala, and Belize.


D. mawii is hunted extensively for food and the species' population has been seriously depleted throughout its range. If this intensive exploitation continues, not only will the turtle disappear, but the local inhabitants will lose an important part of their diet. Turtle meat labeled as from Dermatemys has occasionally been imported into the United States. However, as shown in a law enforcement case, this meat was actually from sea turtles. The extent of possible international commercial trade in meat from this turtle is impossible to gauge, but could be significant as there were numerous inquiries from soup companies as to its legality for trade during the late 1970s and early 1980s. This species' recovery will depend on enacting laws to protect the species from overcollecting (for commercial and local food sources) and vandalism.

Conservation and Recovery

Secondary management efforts should concentrate on protecting the rivers inhabited by D. mawii. Inundation resulting from dam construction or other activities which alter the hydrologic regime would have a negative impact on the reproductive capacity of this turtle. Declines in water quality (e.g., sedimentation, pollutants) could potentially affect this species.


Instituto Nacional de Ecología
Av. Revolución, 1425
Col. Campestre, C.P. 01040, Mexico, D.F.


Konstant, William. 2000. "Featured Reptile: Central American River Turtle." Conservation International Foundation. [Accessed 4 August 2000].

Polisar, J. and Horwich, R. 1994. "Conservation of the Large, Economically Important River Turtle Dermatemys mawii in Belize." Conservation Biology 8(2): 338-342.

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