Published March 8, 2023. Open access.

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South American Snapping-Turtle (Chelydra acutirostris)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Testudines | Chelydridae | Chelydra acutirostris

English common name: South American Snapping-Turtle.

Spanish common names: Tortuga mordedora, tortugaña (Ecuador); tortuga pímpano, bachará (Colombia).

Recognition: ♂♂ 48.4 cmMaximum straight length of the carapace. ♀♀ 39.1 cmMaximum straight length of the carapace..1,2 The South American Snapping-Turtle (Chelydra acutirostris) differs from other freshwater turtles in western Ecuador by having a broad carapace with three longitudinal keels and parallel lateral margins.3,4 The plastron is cross-shaped and lacks movable lobes.5 The carapace is dark brown with a pattern of lines radiating over each scute, but algal growth can obscure this pattern (Fig. 1).6 The tail is almost as long as the carapace.3 The head has a powerful apical hook and 4–6 barbules on the chin.4 The limbs are robust and end in long nails.3 Males are larger and have longer, thicker tails than females.3 No other turtle in western Ecuador can be confused with C. acutirostris.

Figure showing variation among individuals of Chelydra acutirostris

Figure 1: Individuals of Chelydra acutirostris from Guayas () and Azuay () provinces, Ecuador. ad=adult, j=juvenile.

Natural history: Chelydra acutirostris is a commonRecorded weekly in densities above five individuals per locality. chelonian in rescue centers of Ecuador, but it is rarelyTotal average number of reported observations per locality less than ten. seen in the wild. South American Snapping-Turtles are aquatic, primarily nocturnal, and spend most of the time in shallow water.3 They are poor swimmers and move by strolling on the bottom of rivers, streams, lagoons, lakes, and swamps.4,6 They also occur in artificial water bodies such as fish ponds, tailing ponds, ditches polluted by agrochemicals, and domestic and industrial wastewater.4 These turtles prefer sandy or muddy substrate as it allows them to be buried for long periods of time.7 They may also be seen walking slowly and deliberately along the banks, but rarely sunbathing; or they may do so half submerged and supported by logs.3 These turtles are ambush predators and their diet is omnivorous. They feed on crabs, shrimp, fish, mollusks, earthworms, insects, frogs, baby turtles, snakes, birds, and small mammals, as well as carrion and aquatic vegetation.2,3 Snapping turtles are not social creatures. Males are territorial and occupy 0.1–15 hectare ranges,4 although there is overlap between territories.8

When threatened, snapping turtles face potential attackers by jumping with their mouth open.7 They can also release a strong and nauseating musk.3 Handling a large snapping turtle can result in serious injuries due to the force of their jaw and their aggressively defensive temperament.3 Only the Brown Caiman (Caiman fuscus) has been reported as a natural predator of adults of this species.7 Copulation in Chelydra acutirostris takes place underwater.5 Females excavate their nests at a distance of up to 50 m from water bodies.8 In Ecuador, egg-laying takes place at the end of the rainy season (May–June).9 The clutch contains 11–83 (average=27) round eggs measuring 28–33 mm in diameter and weighing 5–15 g.2,3,7 The incubation period is 55–125 days (about 2–4 months).10 In other Chelydra species, incubation temperature determines the sex of the hatchlings, with a greater percentage of females resulting from temperatures above 27°C.2 Snapping turtles are most vulnerable as eggs and hatchlings and there are records of predation by coyotes, armadillos, and the snake Drymarchon melanurus.2,10

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Conservation: Least Concern Believed to be safe from extinction given current circumstances..11 Chelydra acutirostris is listed in this category given its wide distribution over areas that have not been heavily affected by deforestation, including the entire Colombian Pacific coast and major ecological reserves in Ecuador: Cotacachi Cayapas, Cayapas Mataje, and Mache Chindul. Therefore, the species is considered to be facing no major immediate extinction threats. However, populations outside protected areas in Ecuador and Colombia are declining due to habitat loss and indiscriminate harvesting.4,12 Adult turtles are hunted for medicinal use, carving of handicrafts, consumption, or to be used or sold as pets.4,5,12

Distribution: Chelydra acutirostris is native to an estimated 328,705 km2 area in the Chocó–Río Magdalena valley and Mesoamerica biogeographic regions.1 The species occurs from southeastern Honduras, along the Atlantic versant of Central America, to western Colombia and Ecuador.1 In Ecuador, C. acutirostris has been recorded at elevations between 0 and 624 m (Fig. 2).

Distribution of Chelydra acutirostris in Ecuador

Figure 2: Distribution of Chelydra acutirostris in Ecuador. The star corresponds to the type locality: Guayaquil, Guayas province. See Appendix 1 for a complete list of the presence localities included in the map.

Etymology: The generic name Chelydra is a Greek word meaning “tortoise.”13 The specific epithet acutirostris, which is formed by the Latin words acutus (meaning “pointed”) and rostrum (meaning “snout”),13 refers to the slightly pointed snout of this species compared with that of C. serpentina.14

See it in the wild: Due to human persecution, South American Snapping-Turtles are becoming increasingly rare in the coastal region of Ecuador. However, in some protected areas, like Canandé Reserve, they may still be abundant. Active individuals are most easily found at night submerged in shallow water or embedded in muddy areas, particularly in freshwater ecosystems having abundant aquatic vegetation along the edges and many submerged trunks.

Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Ernesto Arbeláez (Bioparque Amaru) and Ricardo Chiriboga and María Belén Chiriboga (Zoo el Pantanal) for prodiving photographic access to specimens of Chelydra acutirostris under their care.

Special thanks to Carolina López for symbolically adopting the South American Snapping-Turtle and helping bring the Reptiles of Ecuador book project to life.

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Authors: Gabriela SandovalaAffiliation: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Quito, Ecuador. and Alejandro ArteagabAffiliation: Khamai Foundation, Quito, Ecuador.

Photographers: Jose VieiracAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador.,dAffiliation: ExSitu, Quito, Ecuador. and Alejandro ArteagabAffiliation: Khamai Foundation, Quito, Ecuador.

How to cite? Sandoval G, Arteaga A (2023) South American Snapping-Turtle (Chelydra acutirostris). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: DOI: 10.47051/IZLK7700

Literature cited:

  1. Rhodin AGJ, Iverson JB, Bour R, Fritz U, Georges A, Shaffer HB, van Dijk PP (2021) Turtles of the world: annotated checklist and atlas of taxonomy, synonymy, distribution, and conservation status. Chelonian Research Monographs 8: 1–472. DOI: 10.3854/crm.8.checklist.atlas.v9.2021
  2. Savage JM (2002) The amphibians and reptiles of Costa Rica, a herpetofauna between two continents, between two seas. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 934 pp.
  3. Rueda-Almonacid JV, Carr JL, Mittermeier RA, Rodríguez-Mahecha JV, Mast RB, Vogt RC, Rhodin AGJ, de la Ossa-Velásquez J, Rueda JN, Mittermeier CG (2007) Las tortugas y los cocodrilianos de los países andinos del trópico. Conservación Internacional, Bogotá, 538 pp.
  4. Young-Valencia K, Ortega-Guio A, Carr JL, Giraldo A, Botero-Botero A (2021) Chelydra acutirostris Peters, 1862. Catálogo de Anfibios y Reptiles de Colombia 7: 20–30.
  5. Regalado Tabares AK, Botéro-Botéro A, Múnera-Isaza C, Ortega-Guio AF, Restrepo Isaza A (2012) Chelydra acutirostris. In: Páez VP, Morales-Betancourt MA, Lasso CA, Castaño-Mora OV, Bock BC (Eds) Biología y conservación de las tortugas continentales de Colombia. Serie Editorial Recursos Hidrobiológicos y Pesqueros Continentales de Colombia, Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt (IAvH), Bogotá, 275–278.
  6. Leenders T (2019) Reptiles of Costa Rica: a field guide. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 625 pp.
  7. Medem F (1977) Contribución al conocimiento sobre la taxonomía, distribución geográfica y ecología de la tortuga “Bache” (Chelydra serpentina acutirostris). Caldasia 12: 41–101.
  8. Ortega-Guio AF (2005) Determinación del área de actividad y uso del hábitat de la tortuga bache Chelydra acutirostris reintroducida y silvestre en las madreviejas de La Trozada, El Madrigal, y la Herradura utilizando la técnica de radiotelemetría. Fundación Ecoandina, WCS Colombia, Santiago de Cali, 64 pp.
  9. Grunewald F (2008) Observations on the South-American snapping turtle Chelydra acutirostris Peters, 1862 in Ecuador. Emys 15: 33–40.
  10. Acuña RA (1998) Las tortugas continentales de Costa Rica. Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, San José, 96 pp.
  11. Reyes-Puig C (2015) Un método integrativo para evaluar el estado de conservación de las especies y su aplicación a los reptiles del Ecuador. MSc thesis, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, 73 pp.
  12. Carr JL, Almendáriz A, Simmons JE, Nielsen MT (2014) Subsistence hunting for turtles in northwestern Ecuador. Acta Biológica Colombiana 19: 401–413. DOI: 10.15446/abc.v19n3.42886
  13. Brown RW (1956) Composition of scientific words. Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C., 882 pp.
  14. Bonin F, Devaux B, Dupré A (2006) Tortugas del mundo. Lynx, Barcelona, 416 pp.

Appendix 1: Locality data used to create the distribution map of Chelydra acutirostris in Ecuador (Fig. 2). Go to the section on symbols and abbreviations for a list of acronyms used.

ColombiaNariñoBajo CumilincheUPTC 2019
ColombiaNariñoBoca del Rio MatajeYoung-Valencia et al. 2021
ColombiaNariñoRio Mataje, La BreaYoung-Valencia et al. 2021
ColombiaNariñoRio Mataje, near La BreaYoung-Valencia et al. 2021
ColombiaNariñoTumacoiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorBolívarCalumaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorCañarLa PuntillaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorCotopaxiEl Jardín de los SueñosPellet 2017
EcuadorCotopaxiLa ManáCisneros-Heredia 2006
EcuadorEl OroEl GuaboiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEl OroEl Guabo, 1 km NE ofiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEl OroHuaquillasiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEl OroHumedal La TembladeraGarzón-Santomaro et al. 2019
EcuadorEl OroLa Palestina, 1 km SE ofiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEl OroMachalaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEl OroPuerto BolívariNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEl OroPuerto PitahayaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEsmeraldasBorbónCisneros-Heredia 2006
EcuadorEsmeraldasBosque Protector La PerlaPhoto by Plácido Palacios
EcuadorEsmeraldasCachabiUSNM 204050; VertNet
EcuadorEsmeraldasCarondeletGBIF Catalog #1319176759
EcuadorEsmeraldasConcepciónCarr et al. 2014
EcuadorEsmeraldasEl Guabo, 8 km SW ofiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEsmeraldasHacienda ErazoiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEsmeraldasHacienda Los CascabelesiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEsmeraldasIncopalmito S.A.iNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEsmeraldasLa BocaUSNM 281875; VertNet
EcuadorEsmeraldasLa TolaCisneros-Heredia 2006
EcuadorEsmeraldasMuisneiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEsmeraldasPambilarDistribution map in Rhodin 2021
EcuadorEsmeraldasPlaya GrandeCarr et al. 2014
EcuadorEsmeraldasReserva Ecológica Mache ChinduliNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEsmeraldasRío BlancoUSNM 204049; VertNet
EcuadorEsmeraldasRío Hoja BlancaObservation by Alejandro Arteaga
EcuadorEsmeraldasRío QuinindéiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEsmeraldasSan José de TaguaCisneros-Heredia 2006
EcuadorGuayasCabeceras del Río CongoUSNM 204051; VertNet
EcuadorGuayasCamaroneras del Río TauraiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorGuayasCerro del MuertoiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorGuayasDuránAMNH 23425; not examined
EcuadorGuayasEl Empalme, Guayas (Pueblo Nuevo)iNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorGuayasGuayaquil, Ciudadela ParaísoiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorGuayasGuayaquil, La BahíaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorGuayasIsidro AyoraiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorGuayasIsla de SilvaOrcés 1949
EcuadorGuayasIsla SantayiNaturalist
EcuadorGuayasManglares ChuruteDirección Zonal 5 MAATE
EcuadorGuayasRancho de WangiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorGuayasRío CañariNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorGuayasSendero Los SamanesiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorImbaburaLlurimaguaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorLos RíosBuena FéVideo by Robinson Cevallos
EcuadorLos RíosCentro Científico Río PalenqueMCZ 162883; VertNet
EcuadorLos RíosDel María JoseiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorLos RíosPozuelosiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorLos RíosQuevedoiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorManabíCañalesiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorManabíLa BramadoraiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorManabíPoza HondaPhoto by Lisa Brunetti
EcuadorManabíRepresa La EsperanzaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorManabíSube y BajaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorManabíZapalloiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorPichinchaBotrosa, 2 km NE ofiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorPichinchaEl Monte LodgePhoto by Tom Quesenberry
EcuadorPichinchaPedro Vicente MaldonadoiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorPichinchaPuerto Quito LodgeiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorPichinchaRancho SuamoxPhoto by Rafael Ferro
EcuadorPichinchaReserva PambiliñoiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorPichinchaRío MashpiMedina 2021
EcuadorPichinchaSelva VirgenObservation by Alejandro Arteaga
EcuadorPichinchaVia a Gran Colombia, km 3iNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorPichinchaVia a Gran Colombia, km 4iNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorPichinchaVivero Frutal JaboticabaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorPichinchaYaku Forest LodgeiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasCentro de Rescate James BrowniNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasCóngomaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasEl SabaloiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasFinca la EsperanzaUSNM 281873; VertNet
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasLa Concordia, 6 km SE ofiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasLa Unión, 4 km SE ofGBIF Catalog #1320851586
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasMinera Tres HermanosiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasSanto Domingo de los ColoradosiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasSanto Domingo, 15 km N ofAMNH 110613; not examined
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasSanto Domingo, via Alfonso ToledoiNaturalist; photo examined