18 Weird and Wonderful Turtle and Tortoise Species

fascinating weird and wonderful turtle and tortoise species

Treehugger / Catherine Song

Turtles and tortoises are known for their slow pace, agreeable faces, and shells. They are distributed across every continent except Antarctica, from South Asia to Canada, and there are approximately 356 species of turtles, including 49 species of tortoises (i.e., turtles that live on land as well as water and have more rounded, domed shells). Although many turtle species look similar, they differ in both aesthetic and behavior. Some have spiny shells while others' are smooth. They can live in salt water or fresh water, and so forth.

Here are 18 of the most fascinating turtle species in the world.

African Helmeted Turtle

African helmeted turtle sitting the water

Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / Shutterstock

The African helmeted turtle (Pelomedusa subrufa), also known as the marsh terrapin, is prevalent throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and Yemen. While its shell can vary from black to tan, it has distinctly wide eyes and a mouth that appears to be perpetually smiling. However, don't be fooled by its friendly demeanor: The African helmeted turtle is omnivorous and will eat almost anything, including carrion. They have been witnessed drowning doves and other relatively large prey, dragging them to the depths of ponds to dine.

Mata Mata Turtle

Mata mata turtle showcasing its leaf-looking head

J. Patrick Fischer / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The mata mata (Chelus fimbriatus) is perfectly camouflaged for its preferred habitat of slow-moving streams, stagnate pools, and marshes. With a carapace (hard upper shell) that looks like bark and a head and neck that resemble fallen leaves, this South American turtle is more capable of blending in with its surroundings, ready to sneakily suck up any fish that crosses its path. It has a particularly long and pointy snout that it uses like a snorkel, sticking it just out of the water to breathe.

Red-Bellied Short-Necked Turtle

Red-bellied short-necked turtle standing on tree bark

Petra Karstedt/Tiermotive.de / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 de

The red-bellied short-necked turtle (Emydura subglobosa) has been nicknamed the painted terrapin because it has a bright-red belly when it's young, then the vivid hue fades to orange or yellow as it ages. Native to tropical Australia and New Guinea, it grows to be about 10 inches long and is popular as a pet.

Spiny Softshell Turtle

Spiny softshell turtle with dotted shell in water

Peter Paplanus / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera) is one of the largest freshwater turtles found in North America — females can grow a carapace of up to 19 inches long. Found from Canada to Mexico, these turtles can live to be 50 years old and don't reach sexual maturity until eight to 10 years of age. The species gets its name from the small spines that project from the upper front portion of its carapace, making it look even more like its late dinosaur relatives.

Roti Island Snake-Necked Turtle

Roti Island snake-necked turtle under water
Olena Zaskochenko / 500px / Getty Images

The Roti Island snake-necked turtle (Chelodina mccordi) is one of the stranger looking turtle species, with its namesake elongated neck. Its most distinguishing feature can reach between seven and nine inches long, about the length of its carapace (taking up half of its body length). But this species is critically endangered. Its desirability in the pet trade has led to serious declines of wild populations. The two or three populations left are located in a tiny area of Rote Island, Indonesia, and they are still often illegally captured for trade.

Radiated Tortoise

Radiated tortoise and its high-domed shell

Rob Hainer / Shutterstock

Native to Madagascar, the radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) is distinguished by its high-domed shell featuring yellow lines fanning out from the center of each plate (hence the name "radiated"). It can grow to be 16 inches long and weigh 35 pounds, Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute says. In addition to its geometric aesthetic, the radiated tortoise can live especially long — the oldest on record is Tu'i Malila, who lived to be an estimated 188 years old. The species is critically endangered due to habitat loss, poaching, and collection for the pet trade.

Leatherback Turtle

Leatherback turtle resting in the sand
Rawlinson_Photography / Getty Images

Not only is the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) the largest of all sea turtles, it also dives the deepest and travels the farthest. Unlike other sea turtles, it has no scales or hard shell; instead, its back is covered with rubbery skin and oily flesh — thought to be unchanged since the dinosaur era. Leatherbacks are real tough guys, too, apt to chase away sharks and other predators. And yet, like most sea turtle species, this one is threatened by fishing and plastic pollution, currently listed on the IUCN Red List as a vulnerable species.

Cantor's Giant Softshell Turtle

Cantor's giant softshell turtle lying in the sand

لا اعرفه - موقع اخبارك الان / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Cantor's giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) is called "giant" because it can be more than six feet long. Its broad head and flattened shell helps to camouflage it with the sand as it waits, motionless, at the bottom of freshwater rivers and streams, for a chance to ambush its prey. It surfaces only twice a day to breathe. The peculiar-looking turtle was only recently rediscovered in Cambodia in 2007. It's an endangered species.

African Spurred Tortoise

Up-close of the forearm spurs of an African spurred tortoise
John A. Beatty / Getty Images

The African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata) has impressive "spurs" along its forelegs. Found along the southern edge of the Sahara desert, it is the third largest tortoise species in the world, and the largest mainland tortoise (both the larger Galapagos tortoise and Aldabra giant tortoise are island dwellers). They can grow to two to three feet long over their 50- to 150-year lifespan. Because they're popular in the pet trade, they are often removed from the wild and are, as a result, listed as a species vulnerable to extinction.

Indian Flapshell Turtle

Small Indian flapshell turtle resting on leaf

Rejoice Gassah / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

The Indian flapshell turtle (Lissemys punctata) has many folds of skin that cover its limbs when it retreats into its shell and are thought to help protect it from predators. As an omnivore, this turtle dines on anything from frogs and fish to flowers and fruit. And while it prefers living in streams and ponds, it can tolerate a certain level of drought by burrowing and traveling to other water holes. Those flaps of skin can also help it survive through dry weather.

Alligator Snapping Turtle

Alligator snapping turtle sitting on a rock

Peter Paplanus / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The largest freshwater turtle in the world based on weight, the alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) can reach 150 pounds or more. It's found in the southeastern U.S. and gets its name through both its primitive, gatorlike looks and its ambush-style hunting technique. Its mouth is camouflaged and it has a wormlike appendage on the tip of its tongue to lure in fish, snakes, water birds, and other turtles.

Big-Headed Turtle

Big-headed turtle swimming in shallow water
David A. Northcott / Getty Images

The big-headed turtle (Platysternon megacephalum) has a head so large it can't retract it into its shell for protection, but it makes up for this with its powerful jaws. It also uses its jaws — as well as its rather long tail — to climb trees and bushes. The species occurs in southern China and throughout Southeast Asia, where it is sometimes captured for food. Being hunted for food markets and the pet trade has caused the big-headed turtle to be endangered.

Yellow Blotched Map Turtle

Yellow-blotched Map Turtle on a tree in Mississippi
Ed Reschke / Getty Images

The yellow blotched map turtle (Graptemys flavimaculata) is one of several species of map turtle, called so because of the maplike markings on its carapace. Map turtles have ridges that run along the backs of their shells, which is how they got the name "saw-backed" turtles. This species has a very small range — it is only located in the Pascagoula River of Mississippi and its tributaries. That, combined with a low reproduction success rate (due to human disturbance and crow predation), has caused the species to be vulnerable to extinction.

Galapagos Tortoise

Galapagos tortoise walking in the trees

Benjamint / Shutterstock

One of the more well-known terrapins, the giant Galapagos tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra) is the world's largest living species of tortoise, sometimes living for more than 100 years in the wild. In fact, one captive Galapagos tortoise lived to be 170. The biggest Galapagos tortoises on record were more than six feet long and weighed 880 pounds. The species is native to the Galapagos islands, and subspecies are found on seven of the islands in the archipelago. Hunting, habitat loss, and introduction of nonnative species have caused their numbers to plummet.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Hawksbill sea turtle looking at camera

Rich Carey / Shutterstock

The hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is found throughout the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. It gets its name from the sharp point at the end of its upper jaw, resembling a raptor's bill, which helps it gather food from the crevices of coral reefs. Despite its critically endangered status, hawksbill eggs are still collected for food, and they are still caught for meat and for their beautifully colored shells, often made into jewelry and trinkets. There are only around 20,000 nesting females left, and even those only nest every two to four years.

Ploughshare Tortoise

Ploughshare tortoise with a patterned, high-domed shell

Ryan M. Bolton / Shutterstock

The ploughshare tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora), also known as the angonoka tortoise, is a critically endangered species native to Madagascar. With fewer than 600 left in the wild and still declining, it is considered to be one of the rarest tortoises in the world, predicted to go extinct within two decades. Still, the beautiful species attracts poachers. In March 2013, smugglers were caught carrying a single bag containing 54 of them in an airport.

Pig-Nosed Turtle

Pig-nosed turtle swimming
Mark Newman / Getty Images

The pig-nosed turtle (Carettochelys insculpta) is unique not just because of its snout, but also because it's the only freshwater turtle with flippers like sea turtles. It's found in streams, lagoons, and rivers in the Northern Territory of Australia and in New Guinea. Sadly, the species has experienced a population decline of about 50 percent in recent decades, due mainly to the exotic pet trade. The species is known for its territorial behavior and thus high levels of aggression when in captivity, so captive breeding isn't an option for most pig-nosed turtle owners.

Leopard Tortoise

Leopard tortoise walking on rocks

Ecoprint / Shutterstock

The leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) is known for its distinct shell markings, most defined early in life. Found in the savannas of eastern and southern Africa, it spends its days grazing on grasses and succulents. Despite its heavy-looking shell, the leopard tortoise is speedy, and can even climb. Its toenails give it a solid grip on porous surfaces, like wood and rough stone.

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