The Philippine forest turtle was one of the best-kept animal secrets in the world until very recently. After being wrongly classified in 1920, the only two specimens were destroyed in the firebombing of Manila during WWII.
They were then rediscovered in the late 80s when a specimen was purchased from a resident of Taytay, the 1st class municipality in the province of Rizal in the Philippines.
However, due to the erroneous taxonomy, they believed it to have arrived in Palawan as a result of interisland trading, and when they couldn’t find any more specimens in Leyte (where it was thought they were from), they assumed the worst…that they were already extinct.
Fortunately, after a 2001 assessment of the endemic wildlife in Palawan, their true origin was finally uncovered, but the bad news is that as they’re such a new discovery, not much is recorded about these enigmatic critters — here’s what we know so far.
Male vs Female
There aren’t many differences between male and female Philippine forest turtles that are unique to the species, so standard techniques of determining turtle gender are employed.
These typically involve assessing the overall size of the turtle as well as the size of their tail, and comparing the shaping of their plastra (their shells).
Males are slightly larger, with longer tails and more concave plastra, while females usually have flat or ever so slightly convex plastra.
Philppene Forest turtles can be identified by their Ginkgo-shaped scutes (the panels of their shell), but it’s the white or yellow stripe that runs across their head and behind both of their ears that usually gives them away.
The strip usually forms a small V shape or gap in the center of their head, and has earned them the rather loveable nickname of “bowtie turtle”.
As a Pet
Being that the Philippine forest turtle is classed as a critically endangered species on the IUCN conservation scale, it’s not legal to sell them or keep these unique reptiles as pets.
However, that hasn’t stopped people trading them illegally. They were the 6th most confiscated pet in the Philippines between 2009-2011.
Unfortunately, not much has been officially recorded about the exact lifespan of these wonderful animals, but they’re known to live for a long time, and they tend to have incredibly high adult survival rates.
While we don’t know much about how the Philippine forest turtle has adapted to the wetlands and creeks of northern Palawan and its surrounding islands specifically, it does exhibit the standard chelonian adaptations.
Their hands have adapted for aquatic life, while their hearts exhibit a functional ventricular septal defect, allowing them to use anaerobic glycolysis as an energy source during prolonged diving.
We currently have a very poor understanding of this species of turtle’s breeding season; however, there have been reports of hatchlings and juveniles in the wild during the dry season, and in captivity, females tend to lay their eggs from June through December.
The female Philippine forest turtle will only lay one to two eggs in a clutch and will only lay up to six annually. Even in a human-controlled environment, conservationist teams have reported significant losses at both egg and hatchling stages.
The growth rate of the Philippine Forest turtle begins quite fast, with captive juvenile turtles up to 75mm long growing between 0.09mm and 0.1mm a day. As they get older, their growth slows significantly, with larger juveniles measuring up to 120mm growing as little as 0.02mm a day.
Growth rate then picks up again in captive adult males, increasing to 0.03mm a day until fully mature.
The mean juvenile growth rate of wild populations has been calculated at 0.07mm per day, and all Philippine forest turtles exhibit delayed reproductive maturity, regardless of their being part of the wild or captive population.
We know very little of the Philippine forest turtle’s natural life cycle, as they simply haven’t been widely observed in the wild, but as I’ve already mentioned, they’re known to be late bloomers.
However, this delayed coming of age is offset by iteroparity (the reproductive strategy of mating multiple times before death as opposed to only once).
Males do not do well in captivity due to their aggressively territorial behavior, limiting conservationists’ abilities to nourish the species in controlled environments.
As for Philippine forest turtles in the wild, there are an estimated 10,000 specimens spread throughout their endemic zones, finding notable abundance in the creeks of Dumaran, an island near Palawan.
Elsewhere, their numbers are steadily decreasing, which is why they’re categorized in the most severe sub-section of the “threatened” umbrella on the IUCN conservation status spectrum.
An omnivorous creature, the Philippine forest turtle will eat a number of different things for sustenance, including commercial turtle food, dates, aquatic plants, and small fish and crustaceans.
Freshwater turtles have lots of natural enemies, which is likely part of the reason their numbers in the wild are so low. The Philippines is home to 26 species of eagles, hawks, and kites, for example, all of which will snack on a Philippine forest turtle hatchling if given half the chance.
However, the biggest risk to their survival is human activity. Our meddling has caused significant habitat loss, and the illegal pet trade is set to seriously harm the residual population.
They’re quickly being rounded up and shipped to destinations outside the Philippines, so there’s a good chance the natural population will collapse soon.
The locals of Palawan also hunt them for food and medicinal purposes, putting even more pressure on their waning numbers.
These turtles don’t travel too far from their home, as they’re very private creatures that live close to their hunting and foraging grounds. They tend to only leave their hideaways in the early morning and late at night to avoid detection.
There are no known diseases specific to this species of turtle, but it’s likely they suffer the same common ailments as other freshwater species, such as shell infections, abscesses, respiratory diseases, parasites, and fractures.
Philippine forest turtles typically have a very thin mottled gray, sometimes faintly blue iris, a large black pupil, and little to no visible sclera (whites of the eyes).
Even though winter in the Philippines only brings daytime temperatures down to around 20 degrees C, the nights can get quite chilly, so it’s possible that the Philippine Forest turtle will go into a mild form of hibernation known as brumation.
Brumation is a state of torpor in which bodily functions slow down significantly in order to survive extreme weather conditions.
Similarly, if the Philippine summer becomes too intense, it may also trigger a torpor, allowing them to estivate underwater or in cool earth.
Can They Swim?
The Philippine forest turtle loves being around and in water. They’re fantastic swimmers, and it’s a good job too, otherwise, they could scratch small fish off their omnivorous menu.
When first brought into captivity, it was noted that they often spent extended periods of time in water, often hiding under submerged rocks.
Female Philippine forest turtles require a very stable environment in captivity, as it’s known that stress can have a negative impact on their reproductive health.
Both males and females of the species are incredibly private, so they must be provided with plenty of rocks to hide under. As I’ve already touched upon, they love water, so a large freshwater pool is essential to their health.
They like to forage and hunt for food, but they’re perfectly happy eating commercial fish food. As they like to forage early in the morning or late at night, the feeding schedule can be quite challenging.
It’s been reported that in the wild they live among other more common species of turtle endemic to the Philippines, but as the males are so territorial, conservationists tend to limit their enclosures to their own species.
Classed as critically endangered animals, it’s illegal to buy Philippine forest turtles, but sales figures as high as 2000 Euros across Europe have been observed in the past. Even higher prices around the $4500 mark have been recorded in the USA.
The cost of keeping these endangered turtles will quickly exceed the already lofty purchase price. They can grow as long as 30cm and don’t take well to captivity, so a huge enclosure is required to help them settle in.
- The local Palawan people keep Philippine forest turtles in their pig’s water troughs, as it’s said to bring luck to families and their pigs.
- The Philippine forest turtle is known as “Bakoko” among the local Cuyonon-speaking, coastal Palawan population.
- The sub-genus name for the Philippine forest turtle is Panyaenemys, which is derived from the Palawan word, “Panya-en”, roughly translating to “enchanted”, as these turtles were supposedly favorite pets of the forest spirits.
- Philippine forest turtles were first officially recorded in 1920 by American herpetologist, Edward Harrison Taylor, but as the specimens were believed to have been collected from the swamps of Cabalian in Southern Leyte, they were erroneously named Heosemys Leytensis. It wasn’t until their rediscovery in 2001 that their true origin was revealed.