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Pelomedusidae 

The family Pelomedusidae is directly under the suborder Pleurodira. The Pelomedusidae are commonly known as side-necked turtles.

As such members of the family Pelomedusidae are side-neck turtles. The other two families of side-necked turtles are Chelidae and Podocnemididae.

Together, Chelidae, Podocnemididae, and Pelomedusidae form the suborder Pleurodira. 

Pelomedusidae belongs to the order Testudines along with all other turtles, the class Reptilia which includes birds and reptiles, the phylum Chordata, and the kingdom Animalia. 

There are two extant genera under the family. These are Pelomedusa and Pelusios. 

Pelomedusidae is commonly referred to as African side-necked turtles as they are endemic to Subsaharan Africa and can be found on the islands of Seychelles, Sao Tome, and Madagascar. 

As with other side-neck turtles, the Pelomedusidae cannot fully retract its head into the shell. Instead, it folds the neck to the side under the shell.

This behavior is what gives the turtle its common name ‘side-necked turtle’.

African side-necked turtles are quite moderately sized with carapace lengths ranging from 4.5 to 17.5 inches (12 to 45 cm). These turtles have a rounded carapace and are tan to brownish in coloration. 

African side-necked turtles are carnivorous and are known to feed on worms, mollusks, and insects. They can be found in shallow lakes and rivers with muddy substrates.

They are also known to aestivate through the dry season burying themselves in the mud left over from dried-up water bodies. During this period, they are relatively inactive. 

Pelomedusidae is closely related to Podocnemididae. In fact, some sources consider Podocnemididae as a subfamily under Pelomedusidae while other sources consider Pelomedusidae to be a subfamily under Podocnemididae.

Also, Pelomedusidae and Podocnemididae together form the superfamily Pelomedusoides.

As mentioned earlier, Pelomedusidae, Podocnemididae, and Chelidae come together to form the suborder Pleurodira. However, Pelomedusidae and Podocnemididae are more closely related to each other than they are related to Chelidae. 

The family Pelomedusidae was first described by the German herpetologist, Johann Georg Wagler, in 1830.

Table of Contents

  1. Pelomedusidae Family
    1. Genus Pelomedusa
    2. Genus Pelusios
  2. FAQ
  3. Conclusion

Turtles in The Pelomedusidae Family

Genus Pelomedusa

1. African Helmeted Terrapin 

Helmeted Turtle (Pelomedusa subrufa) climbing up a rock or hill in Erongo, Namibia, Africa
A Helmeted Turtle (Pelomedusa subrufa) climbing up a rock or hill in Erongo, Namibia, Africa. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelomedusa subrufa
  • Length: 8 inches (20 cm)
  • IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern  

The African helmeted terrapin is also called the African side-necked turtle, especially within the pet trade.

They are also called crocodile turtles and marsh terrapin. These turtles can be found throughout Subsaharan Africa and even in Yemen as well. 

These turtles can be found from West Africa to South Africa. They are also endemic to Madagascar and southern Yemen.

These turtles are moderately sized when compared to other freshwater turtles. Although they usually grow to be 8 inches, the largest African helmeted turtle recorded was over a foot in carapace length.

The carapace of this turtle is dark in coloration (black to dark brown). The plastron is yellowish. Interestingly, these turtles have smiling faces. 

The African helmeted turtle is omnivorous although it is predominantly carnivorous.

It eats insects, snails, worms, and other small aquatic animals. The chelonian is even capable of catching and eating birds. It also eats plant matter occasionally.  

The species is commonly found in stagnant freshwater bodies. They can also be found in lakes, rivers, and marshes.

They can also be commonly found in rain pools. This terrapin prefers stagnant water the most.

These stagnant waters include dams, pans, swamps, and lakes. They are also hardly present in areas that are arid, forested, or mountainous. 

The African helmeted turtle is popular as a pet, especially in the United States. Their popularity is down to their head-tucking behavior. 

2. Cape Terrapin 

Cape Terrapin (Pelomedusa galeata) in water swimming through aquatic vegetation in Western Cape, South Africa
A Cape Terrapin (Pelomedusa galeata) in water swimming through aquatic vegetation in Western Cape, South Africa. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelomedusa galeata 
  • Length: 8 inches (20 cm)
  • IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern  

Pelomedusa galeata was once regarded as the same species as Pelomedusa subrufa. As such, many subpopulations of P. galeata were once ascribed to P. subrufa

The South African helmeted terrapin can be found in nine South African provinces which comes as no surprise as the species was named after South Africa.

They can also be found in Eswatini, previously known as Swaziland in English,  and Mozambique. The species may be present in Namibia, Botswana, and Lesotho but this is yet to be confirmed. 

In South Africa the species is found in Western Cape, Northern Cape Province, North-West Province, Mpumalanga, Limpopo Province, Kwazulu-Natal, Gauteng, Free State, and Eastern Cape Province.

The species are quite large and are capable of reaching a carapace length of 26 cm regularly. The largest recorded specimen was 32.5 cm. 

The species can be found in stagnant water bodies such as farm dams, flooded quarries, and seasonal pans. Just like the African helmeted terrapin, the South African helmeted terrapin avoids forests and mountainous terrains. 

Similar to the African helmeted terrapin, South African helmeted terrapin is also predominantly carnivorous feeding on insects, snails, worms, and other small aquatic animals. However, occasionally, they will eat water weeds. 

The breeding season for this species begins in late spring to autumn. Gravid females lay up to 30 eggs. 

After about three months, hatchings start to emerge in the summer rainfall region. In the winter rainfall region, incubation takes five to six months. 

Genus Pelusios 

3. Adanson’s Mud Turtle 

Andson's Mud Turtle (Pelusios adansonii) on a muddy surface in Senegal, Africa
An Andson’s Mud Turtle (Pelusios adansonii) on a muddy surface in Senegal, Africa. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios adansonii
  • Length: 9.5 inches (24 cm)
  • IUCN Red List Status: Not listed

Pelusios adansonii is a turtle endemic to north-central Africa. The species can be found in Sudan, South Sudan, Senegal, Nigeria, Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Ethiopia, Chad, Central African Republic, Cameroon, and Benin. 

There are at least three separate subpopulations of the species. 

P. adansonii has a tan carapace with brown markings (dashes and spots). The plastron, on the other hand, is lightly colored, usually yellowish. 

P. adansonii is predominantly carnivorous and feeds on small amphibians, fish, and mollusks. 

Although not endangered or at risk of becoming endangered, the species are hunted and their habitats are being degraded (due to agricultural developments).

4. Okavango Mud Turtle 

Okavango Mud Turtle (Pelusios bechuanicus) being held over grass near Thamalakane River, Botswana
An Okavango Mud Turtle (Pelusios bechuanicus) being held over grass near Thamalakane River, Botswana. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios bechuanicus
  • Average  Max Length: 13 inches (33 cm)
  • IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

P. bechuanicus is endemic to central to southern Africa and can be found in the  Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia (particularly the Zambezi Region), Angola, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. 

P. bechuanicus is quite a large turtle that can grow to a length of 13 inches. P. bechuanicus has a tan carapace.

The face is back with vivid bright yellow markings. The neck, tail, and limbs are yellowish to gray. Males have larger and longer tails and have a more concave plastron. 

This chelonian is normally found in clear but deep portions of rivers and vegetation-choked swamps. As with most mud turtles, P. bechuanicus is semi-aquatic and can be found in an aquatic habitat most of the time. 

The species breeds during the summer and lay about 20 to 50 eggs in October. 

5. African Keeled Mud Turtle 

African Keeled Mud Turtle (Pelusios carinatus) on a mossy rock taken by Hans De Bisschop
An African Keeled Mud Turtle (Pelusios carinatus) on a mossy rock taken by Hans De Bisschop. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios carinatus
  • IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

Pelusios carinatus is a freshwater turtle that is carnivorous.

The species is known to be endemic to central Africa in Gabon, the Republic of the Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The species have been recorded in Gabon but only in a few localities west and north of Bateke Plateau National Park.

6. West African Mud Turtle 

West African Mud Turtle (Pelusios castaneus) on concrete in Oio, Guinea-Bissau
A West African Mud Turtle (Pelusios castaneus) on concrete in Oio, Guinea-Bissau. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios castaneus
  • Length: 10 to 11 inches ( 25 to 28.5 cm)
  • IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

The Pelusios castaneus is a moderately sized aquatic turtle with a carapace length of 10 to 11 inches (25 to 28.5 cm). The coloration of this turtle is varied. The species is also primarily carnivorous.

There are three forms of P. castaneus. The plastron of the first form is usually yellow in color and unmarked and the carapace is light brown.

The plastron of the second form, which is the rainforest form,  is usually dark in color (dark brown or black), and so is the carapace. The third form has a tan carapace and a lightly colored plastron. 

P. castaneus is generally found in forest water bodies in Nigeria. P. castaneus is endemic to West Africa and Central Africa.

The species have been found in Ghana, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Mali, Liberia, Nigeria, Niger, Equatorial Guinea, Senegal, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Angola, Sao Tome and Principe, and Seychelles. 

7. Central African Mud Turtle 

Central African Mud Turtle (Pelusios chapini) on grass in Ngounie, Gabon
A Central African Mud Turtle (Pelusios chapini) on grass in Ngounie, Gabon. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios chapini
  • IUCN Red List Status:  Least Concern

Pelusios chapini is a carnivorous freshwater mud turtle found in central Africa. The species is endemic to the Central African Republic, Gabon, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda. 

8. Ivory Coast Mud Turtle 

Ivory Coast Mud Turtle (Pelusios cupulatta) being held by someone by water and leaves taken by Turtle World on Facebook
An Ivory Coast Mud Turtle (Pelusios cupulatta) being held by someone by water and leaves taken by Turtle World on Facebook. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios cupulatta
  • IUCN Red List Status: Not Evaluated

Pelusios cupulatta is a recently described species that is native to Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) where it gets its common name, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Sierra leone.

9. Gabon Hinged Terrapin

Gabon Hinged Terrapin (Pelusios gabonensis) walking through muddy ground in Haut-Ogooue, Gabon
A Gabon Hinged Terrapin (Pelusios gabonensis) walking through muddy ground in Haut-Ogooue, Gabon. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios gabonensis
  • Other Names: The African Forest Turtle
  • Length: 12 inches (30 cm)
  • IUCN Red List Status: Not listed

The African forest turtle is endemic to central and parts of West Africa. They can be found in Ghana, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Burundi, Angola, Tanzania, and Uganda. 

The species is found solely in tropical rain forests which gives them their common name.

They can be found inhabiting streams, swamps, marshes, and possibly deeper rivers. While adults can be found in waters with strong currents, juveniles prefer stagnant waters. 

The carapace of the species is generally light brownish yellow with a black stripe that goes down its back along its vertebrae. The stripe widens out on the anterior marginal scutes.

The carapace darkens with age and can become completely black if the turtle is old enough. The plastron is dark in coloration with yellowish seams (the divisions between the scutes).

Males have larger and longer tails and have a more concave plastron. 

10. African Dwarf Mud Turtle 

African Dwarf Mud Turtle (Pelusios nanus) on rocky terrain in Mkushi, Zambia
An African Dwarf Mud Turtle (Pelusios nanus) on rocky terrain in Mkushi, Zambia. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios nanus
  • Length: 4 inches (10 cm)
  • Lifespan: 50 years
  • IUCN Red List Status: Not Evaluated

Pelusios nanus is considered one of the smallest turtle species in Africa.

It is possible that they are the smallest turtle in Africa although Muhlenberg’s Bog Turtles and the Stinkpot Musk are also equally tiny. Their small nature gives them their common name. 

The species can be found in Central Africa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Malawi, and Zambia. The carapace of this chelonian is brownish with black streaks.

The rest of its body is also brown to black in coloration. Males have a longer thicker tail and a more concave plastron while females have a shorter tail and a flattened plastron.

P. nanus is found to inhabit freshwater bodies in moist savannahs. 

11. Serrated Hinged Terrapin 

Serrated Hinged Terrapin (Pelusios sinuatus) on rocky terrain at Kruger Park, South Africa
A Serrated Hinged Terrapin (Pelusios sinuatus) on rocky terrain at Kruger Park, South Africa. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios sinuatus
  • Other Common Name: East African serrated mud turtle
  • Length: 16 to 22 inches (47 to 55 cm)
  • IUCN Red List Status: Not Evaluated

The serrated hinged terrapin can be found from east Africa to southern Africa. Its range starts in Ethiopia and ends in South Africa.

The countries where the terrapin is endemic include Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Botswana, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. 

They can be found from Somalia to Lake Tanganyika and Victoria Falls to the west and Zululand and KwaZulu-Natal (both in South Africa) to the south.

The serrated hinged terrapin can be found in rivers and lakes and bask during the day on mud banks, rocks, logs, and even on hippopotami. They prefer large and permanent water bodies. 

The serrated hinged terrapin is predominantly carnivorous and is known to feed on insects, snails, and weeds. 

The serrated hinged terrapin is considered the largest species of the genus Pelusios with a carapace length of  16 to 22 inches. Although males are smaller than females, they have longer, thicker tails.

They are called serrated hinged terrapins because their posterior is strongly serrated when young. Also, their plastron is hinged. 

Their carapace is dark in color. Juveniles have black carapaces while adults have black carapaces with yellow markings around the scutes, occasionally.

The plastron of the species is yellow. 

12. Gabon Mud Turtle 

  • Scientific Name: Pelusios marani
  • IUCN Red List Status: Not evaluated

Pelusios marani is a mud turtle that is a chelonian endemic to the Republic of Congo and of course Gabon. 

13. Williams’ Mud Turtle 

Williams' Mud Turtle (Pelusios williamsi) covered in wet sand taken by Bernard Dupont in Murchison's Falls NP, Uganda
A Williams’ Mud Turtle (Pelusios williamsi) covered in wet sand taken by Bernard Dupont in Murchison’s Falls NP, Uganda. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios williamsi
  • Length: 10 inches (25 cm)
  • IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

Pelusios williamsi is named in honor of  Ernest Edward Williams, an American herpetologist. The species is endemic to Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania.

The carapace of the species is dark brown to black in coloration. 

There are three subspecies and these include the Albert Nile mud turtle (P. w. lutescens), the Ukerewe Island mud turtle (P. w. laurenti), and the Lake Victoria mud turtle (P. w. williamsi). 

P. w. williamsi is endemic to the Upper Nile drainage around Lake Victoria. This subspecies has a black plastron with a yellow line down the middle. 

P. w. lutescens is found to the west of the nominate subspecies in the drainage region of Lake Edward,  Semliki River, and  Lake Albert. The plastron of this subspecies is yellow with brown spots. 

P. w. laurenti is endemic to Ukerewe Island, which is an island in Lake Victoria. This island is the fourth largest island within a lake. This subspecies has a yellow with dark spots on the scutes close to the head.   

14. East African Black Mud Turtle 

East African Black Mud Turtle (Pelusios subniger) on straw and rocks at Liuwa Plain National Park, Zambia
An East African Black Mud Turtle (Pelusios subniger) on straw and rocks at Liuwa Plain National Park, Zambia. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios subniger
  • Other Common Names: Seychelles black mud turtle, pan terrapin, black-bellied hinged terrapin
  • Length: 5.1 to 7.9 inches (13 to 20 cm)
  • Lifespan:  50 years
  • IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern (P. s. subniger), Critically Endangered (P. s. parietalis)

P. subniger is a moderately sized mud turtle capable of reaching a carapace length of 20 cm or 8 inches. 

The species is endemic to East Africa and black in color. Both characteristics give it its common name.

The species can be found from Tanzania and Burundi to eastern Congo to the east, Mozambique to the south, and Botswana to the north. The species is also endemic to Seychelles, Madagascar, and  Diego Garcia of the Chagos Archipelago. 

There are two subspecies of P. subniger. These subspecies are the P. s. subniger (East African black mud turtle) and P. s. parietalis (Seychelles black mud turtle). P. s. subniger can be found in East Africa as well as the islands of Madagascar, Gloriosa, and Mauritius. P. s. parietalis on the other hand is endemic to the Seychelles islands. 

P. subniger can be found inhabiting streams, rivers, lakes, marshes, and swamps in the savannahs throughout its range. In Southeastern Africa, the species also inhabits pans and smaller temporary freshwater bodies. This is why it is also known as the pan terrapin.

The species have a dark brown to black carapace with dark or yellowish markings around the margins. The plastron is also black in coloration.

The species is an omnivore.

15. Lake Turkana Hinged Terrapin

Lake Turkana Hinged Terrapin (Pelusios broadleyi) in rocky terrain Mount Kulal Biosphere Reserve, Kenya
A Lake Turkana Hinged Terrapin (Pelusios broadleyi) in rocky terrain Mount Kulal Biosphere Reserve, Kenya. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios broadleyi
  • Length: 6 inches (15.5 cm)
  • IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable

The Turkana mud turtle is confined to Lake Turkana which gives the chelonian its common name. The species is also known as the Luke Turkana hinged terrapin, and the Broadley’s mud turtle (which honors Donald G. Broadley, an African herpetologist).

Apart from Lake Turkana, the species have not been confirmed to occur anywhere else. The species occurs in the Kenyan portion of the lake (in Marsabit District) and may occur in the Ethiopian portion of the lake as well. 

The carapace of this turtle is grayish brown with small black radiating lines on each scute. The plastron is black or brown with yellow markings present on some specimens.

Hatchlings gave a carapace length of 2.5 cm. 

16. Upemba Mud Turtle 

  • Scientific Name: Pelusios upembae
  • Length: 9 inches (23 cm)
  • IUCN Red List Status: Data Deficient

Upemba mud turtle is a turtle endemic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The species is named after Upemba where it is native. The species can be found in the Lualaba and Fungwe watersheds. 

The carapace of this chelonian to black to dark brown. The plastron on the other hand is black with yellowing spots and blotches. 

17. Mashona Hinged Terrapin 

Mashona Hinged Terrapin (Pelusios rhodesianus) walking on sand at Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
A Mashona Hinged Terrapin (Pelusios rhodesianus) walking on sand at Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios rhodesianus
  • Other Common Names: variable mud turtle, Mashona hinged terrapin, and Rhodesian mud turtle
  • Length: 10 inches (25.5 cm)
  • IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

The variable hinged terrapin is a species endemic to central to southern Africa. This species can be found in South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Angola, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, the democratic republic of the congo, and the republic of the congo. 

The species is considered to be part of the subniger group. This refers to Pelusios with black plastrons. The carapace of this turtle is oval and elongated. It is also black in coloration just like the plastron. The variable hinged terrapin is flattened. 

Although the plastron of this turtle is black, there have been reports of specimens endemic to Zimbabwe with yellow plastrons or plastrons with yellow patches. 

18. West African Black Mud Turtle

West African Black Forest Turtle (Pelusios niger) on dry leaves and sticks in the forest in Moyen-Ogooue, Gabon
A West African Black Forest Turtle (Pelusios niger) on dry leaves and sticks in the forest in Moyen-Ogooue, Gabon. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios niger
  • Length: 10.3 inches (26.3 cm)
  • IUCN Red List Status: Near Threatened 

Pelusios niger is a turtle endemic to West Africa ranging from Liberia and Sierra Leone to Gabon. particularly Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon.

The species can be found in permanent freshwater bodies with muddy bottoms. 

Similar to other African mud turtles, Pelusios niger has an elongated oval carapace that is relatively flat. As evident from its common name, Pelusios niger has a black carapace and a black plastron.

The carapace has light seams with some species having light-colored radiations on some of the scutes. The plastron is similarly colored with yellow seams as well. Seams are the spaces between the scutes. 

19. Seychelles Yellowbelly Mud Turtle

Seychelles Yellowbelly Mud Turtle (Pelusios castanoides) off shore on a rock in the middle of the water in Cascade, Seychelles.
A Seychelles Yellowbelly Mud Turtle (Pelusios castanoides) off shore on a rock in the middle of the water in Cascade, Seychelles.. – Source
  • Scientific Name: Pelusios castanoides
  • Length: 9 inches (23 cm)
  • IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

The Yellow-bellied Mud Turtle is named after its yellow plastron. The species has two subspecies – P. c. castanoides (East African yellow-bellied mud turtle) and P. c. intergularis (Seychelles yellow-bellied mud turtle).

A third subspecies P. c. kapika was proposed in 1978 for the subpopulation in Madagascar but this subpopulation is indistinguishable from the nominate subspecies. As such, there is no third subspecies recognized today.

Yellow-bellied Mud Turtles are endemic to Tanzania, South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Seychelles, and Madagascar. 

P. c. castanoides can be found within its geographic range in continental Africa (from Mozambique and Malawi to eastern  South Africa and Eswatini, previously known as Swaziland in English) and Madagascar.

P. c. intergularis can be found on the islands of Seychelles. 

P. c. castanoides has a black, olive, or yellow carapace, while P. c. intergularis has a dark carapace with a veined or mottled pattern of brown and yellow.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it legal to keep Pelomedusidae as pets?

Many species of Pelomedusidae are commonly kept as pets in the United States and all around the world. These Pelomedusidae are generally captive-bred and easy to acquire.

The Pelomedusidae commonly kept as pets is the  African helmeted terrapin, which is commonly referred to as the African side-necked turtle in the pet trade. 

Is Pelomedusidae easy to keep as pets?

Pelomedusidae is fairly easy to care for when compared to other aquatic turtles commonly kept as pets.

They do not require a massive tank and are easy to feed and clean after. Pelomedusidae is also hardy.

Where is Pelomedusidae found?

Species of  Pelomedusidae are mostly found in Africa natively. Some subpopulations can be found in Asia, specifically Yemen.

Which Pelomedusidae are endangered or threatened?

No species within the family Pelomedusidae is designated as endangered.

However, the subspecies P. s. parietalis (Seychelles black mud turtle) is considered to be critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. The species is estimated to have less than 250 adults remaining. 

This is most likely down to a lack of data as most of the species’ conservation statuses have not been assessed. However, with those assessed, species of the family Pelomedusidae are considered to be Vulnerable or of Least Concern. 

Conclusion

Pelomedusidae refers to African side-necked turtles. These turtles are known as side-necked turtles because they fold their neck sidewards when they retract their head and neck into their shell.  

These chelonians are also commonly known as mud turtles. This is because they generally reside in rivers and lakes with muddy bottoms and can be found within this mud. During the dry season, they are also known to bury themselves in mud as they aestivate.

They are found throughout Subsaharan Africa and can even be found on the islands of Seychelles, Sao Tome, and Madagascar. 

The West African mud turtles are one of the more common African side-necked turtle species kept as pets. 

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