Big-Headed Turtle: Ultimate Guide

The Big-Headed Turtle is one of the most interesting-looking turtle species in the world. 

Not to be confused with the Madagascan Big Headed-Turtle, the Big-Headed Turtle is also known by its scientific name, Platysternon megacephalum, and belongs to the Platysternidae family.

There’s a lot to learn about the Big-Headed Turtle, so without further ado, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know!

Male vs. Female 

It’s generally quite difficult to tell male and female Big-Headed Turtles apart because, unlike many other turtle species, there isn’t a marked difference between the length and thickness of the tails. The males and females are usually not noticeably different in size, either. 

The best way to tell the sexes apart based on external appearance is to look at the shape of the shell. Males typically have slightly indented (concave) shells than females. 

Identification

Even though differentiating between female and male Big-Headed Turtles can be tricky, identifying the species as a whole is relatively easy because of its distinctive appearance. 

The main feature used to identify the Big-Headed Turtle is, predictably, the very large head. The head is triangular in shape and is not proportional to the rest of the turtle’s body – so much so that they cannot actually withdraw their heads back into their shells as most other turtles can. 

The Big-Headed Turtle’s shell also has an unusual shape. The shell is mostly flat, although males can have an indentation in the center. You’ll notice a straight edge at the front of the shell, which looks different from the more rounded back end. 

Big-Headed Turtles have brown and yellow coloring on their shells, long and muscular tails, scaly legs, and clawed toes with webbing in between. 

As a Pet

Although the Big-Headed Turtle is easy to look after and adapts well to life in captivity, the population status of this species (more on this below) means that keeping one of these turtles as a pet is not generally advised. 

Lifespan

Researchers aren’t sure exactly how long Big-Headed Turtles usually live in the wild. However, the specimens observed in captivity typically live for around 20 years.

In the wild, it is thought that the average lifespan is sometimes slightly shorter at around 15 years. However, more research of the species in the wild is needed to confirm this. 

Adaptations

Because Big-Headed Turtles don’t have the ability to pull their heads back into their shells to defend themselves, they have adapted to protect themselves in other ways. 

For one thing, the Big-Headed Turtle has extremely powerful jaws, as you might expect from its large head. These jaws not only help the turtle to prey on snails and fish, but they also mean that the turtle can fight back against potential predators. 

The head of the Big-Headed turtle also has a rigid bone structure, unlike most other turtles, which have soft spots in their skulls. 

Big-Headed Turtles are not the strongest swimmers, so they have developed strong, clawed toes to help them climb rocks in streams and rivers.

Breeding Season

Not much is known about the breeding habits of the Big-Headed Turtle, but we do know that there have been successful attempts at breeding Big-Headed Turtles in captivity during the month of April. 

Eggs

In most cases, female Big-Headed Turtles will lay a couple of eggs at a time. The eggs look a lot like your average bird’s egg. They usually measure 37 mm long and 22 mm across. 

Female Big-Headed Turtles lay their eggs near shallow bodies of water like streams. To keep the eggs safe from predators, the female will dig a nest and line it with leaves. 

Growth Rate

Big-Headed Turtles grow up to a maximum of 40 cm in terms of total body length. They only reach sexual maturity between the ages of 8 and 13 years. 

Life Cycle

From the time that they are hatchlings, Big-Headed Turtles learn how to navigate rocks in rivers and streams in search of food. They are active nocturnally, spending most of the daylight hours concealed under a rock.

By the time they reach between 8 and 13 years old, these turtles are sexually mature and can begin to breed. 

The females of the species lay between 1 and 2 eggs per season, although it’s unclear when this season is in the wild. 

Big-Headed Turtles usually live for between 15 and 20 years when not in captivity. 

Population

Very sadly, the Big-Headed Turtle population is declining in the wild. According to the IUCN (The International Union for Conservation of Nature), the Big-Headed Turtle is a Threatened species. 

Specifically, the species is classified as the second most severe level of Threatened, which is Endangered. 

The main reason for this is that the wild population of Big-Headed Turtles has been depleted over the years through the meat and pet trades. 

Diet

The Big-Headed Turtle’s diet is mostly made up of snails and fish. It can also eat mollusks and worms. The turtle finds its food in streams and rivers. 

In captivity, however, Big-Headed Turtles have been known to happily eat commercial turtle food with no observable negative effect on their health.

Roaming Range

Big-Headed Turtles can be found across Southeast Asia. It has been observed in the wild in China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. 

Diseases

As a semi-aquatic turtle, the Big-Headed Turtle is susceptible to diseases transmitted by contact with water. 

This can include parasitic infections as well as respiratory diseases. Additionally, even though the Big-Headed Turtle has a stronger skull than most turtles, the fact that it can’t retract its head into its shell means that it may be more vulnerable to cuts and lacerations on its head. These can lead to significant health problems if they become infected.

Eye Color

Big-Headed Turtles’ eyes are light in color, appearing as a shade of silver or gold in the light. A dark line crosses the iris on either side of the pupil.

Dark stripes can also be seen behind the Big-Headed Turtle’s eyes. 

Hibernation

Not all Big-Headed Turtles hibernate because most of them live in warm enough areas that hibernation is unnecessary. 

However, those Big-Headed Turtles that live in colder (more Northern) areas of the species’ typical range sometimes go into hibernation during the winter months.

Can They Swim?

The Big-Headed Turtle can swim, but even though it spends quite a lot of time in the water,  it’s not a very efficient swimmer. Instead, the Big-Headed Turtle prefers to use its powerful claws and beak to achieve purchase on rocks and driftwood in the water when it needs to move. 

Care 

Whether you decide to keep a Big-Headed Turtle indoors or outdoors, you should bear in mind that this turtle is semi-aquatic, and therefore, happiest when it has easy access to both land and water. 

The water that you provide for your Big-Headed Turtle should not be too deep because, as we’ve already mentioned, these turtles are not strong swimmers. However, there will need to be enough water for your turtle to comfortably move around and eat since this species prefers to feed in the water. 

Your Big-Headed Turtle’s water should be kept at a cool temperature of roughly 50 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Make sure to position plenty of rocks at the bottom of the water to enable the turtle to engage in its usual climbing behavior and to closely recreate the turtle’s natural habitat. 

You should provide your Big-Headed Turtle with both animal protein and vegetation to keep it as well-nourished as possible. This diet should include snails, mollusks, worms, and fish as well as non-toxic plants. Clams and crayfish are also favorites of the species. 

Costs

It is difficult to estimate the cost of purchasing a Big-Headed Turtle because these turtles are not widely sold in the U.S. due to their rarity. 

The cost of purchase aside, Big-Headed Turtles are not particularly expensive to keep as pets. One reason for this is that they usually don’t require the sophisticated lighting and heating systems as other turtles do since they prefer to live in cooler temperatures. 

However, you will still need to either purchase a water filtration system or alternatively, commit to changing your turtle’s water every day to avoid respiratory infections and other health issues. 

The diet of the Big-Headed Turtle is also more expensive than that of many other turtles. For example, this species eats fish as a primary staple of its diet, which is typically more expensive to fund than a diet made up almost entirely of plants and insects. 

Fun Facts 

  • The Big-Headed Turtle has one of the longest tails of all turtle species. In fact, this turtle’s tail is about the same length as the rest of its body. 
  • Interestingly enough, even though the Big-Headed Turtle can’t physically retract its head into its shell, it still has the muscles necessary to do so. 
  • The Big-Headed Turtle has glands in its shell that release a pungent, musky scent when the turtle feels threatened. This helps to ward off predators. 

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