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Turtles in Costa Rica

There are 13 species of turtles in Costa Rica that are native to the country – nine freshwater species and four protected Sea turtle species.

It’s one of the most diverse countries in the world in terms of wildlife, and this extends to turtles.

In terms of keeping turtles as pets in Costa Rica, the country has outlawed the possession of pets that are classed as wildlife, whether they’re wild-caught or captive-bred. Turtles cannot be kept as pets in Costa Rica. But if you live in the United States or elsewhere, some of these species may be legal and available as pets.

If you do live in Costa Rica, this list can be used as a field herping guide for spotting wild turtles. In places where some of these species may be legal, this list can be a stepping stone to finding your next pet. Here are the 13 species of turtles native to Costa Rica.

Turtles in Costa Rica

1. Central America Mud Turtle

Narrow-bridged Mud Turtle (Kinosternon angustipons)
Narrow-bridged Mud Turtle (Kinosternon angustipons) – source
  • Experience Level: N/A
  • Family: Kinosternidae
  • Scientific Name: Kinosternon angustipons
  • Other Names: Narrow-bridged Mud turtle
  • Adult Size: 3 to 7 inches (7.5 to 17.5 cm)
  • Lifespan: Up to 50 years
  • Average Price Range: N/A

Central American Mud turtles are a species that is native to countries like Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. In Costa Rica, their native range spans the northern half of the country along the border with Nicaragua.

Central American Mud turtles inhabit Costa Rica’s plains and wetlands and are an aquatic species. Like most Mud turtles, they need clear waters and plenty of underwater vegetation for hiding and hunting. They eat a mainly carnivorous diet of crustaceans, small fish, insects, and mollusks.

These turtles have dark green carapaces with steep sides. They have pale, yellowish skin and plastrons.

2. Scorpion Mud Turtle

Scorpion Mud Turtle (Kinosternon scorpioides) by Ricardo Rivera
Scorpion Mud Turtle (Kinosternon scorpioides) by Ricardo Rivera
  • Experience Level: Beginner to Intermediate
  • Family: Kinosternidae
  • Scientific Name: Kinosternon scorpioides
  • Other Names: N/A
  • Adult Size: 3.5 to 10.5 inches (9 to 26.5 cm)
  • Lifespan: Up to 50 years
  • Average Price Range: $40 to $50

Scorpion Mud turtles are a medium to large aquatic species that is native to parts of Central and South America, including Costa Rica. They are found in the southern half of Costa Rica in humid, tropical areas. Scorpion Mud turtles are also an underrated but inquisitive and hardy pet.

Scorpion Mud turtles have black to brown to tan high-domed carapaces. Their skin ranges from black to brown and gray. They have vermiculated patterning that is yellow to red. Males can be distinguished from females by their longer tails.

These turtles have a reputation for being voracious eaters, feasting on carrion, crustaceans, insects, and mollusks. They need clear, slow-moving waters such as lakes, ponds, and swamps.

3. White-lipped Mud Turtle

White lipped mud turtle (Kinosternon leucostomum) on black background
White lipped mud turtle (Kinosternon leucostomum) on black background
  • Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Family: Kinosternidae
  • Scientific Name: Kinosternon leucostomum
  • Other Names: N/A
  • Adult Size: 6 to 7 inches (15 to 18 cm)
  • Lifespan: 30 to 50 years
  • Average Price Range: $60 to $150

White-lipped Mud turtles are a beautiful species native to Central and South American countries such as Costa Rica. They are one of Costa Rica’s most common species and are found everywhere except some central and southeastern areas.

White Lipped Mud turtles have smooth high-domed shells that range from black to brown. These turtles have distinctive whitish lips, along with cream skin around their jaws. They have fleshy barbels on their chins and yellow plastrons.

These aquatic turtles are omnivores, consuming crustaceans, small fish, insects, mollusks, and occasionally plants and carrion. White-lipped Mud turtles inhabit slow, still freshwater sources such as marshes and swamps with silty, sandy bottoms

4. Meso-American Slider

Meso-American Slider (Trachemys venusta venusta) by Carlos Alvarez N
Meso-American Slider (Trachemys venusta venusta) by Carlos Alvarez N
  • Experience Level: N/A
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Trachemys scripta venusta
  • Other Names: N/A
  • Adult Size: 15 to 19 inches (38 to 50 cm)
  • Lifespan: 30 to 40 years
  • Average Price Range: N/A

Meso-American Sliders are the largest subspecies of the Common Slider (Trachemys scripta) and are found across Central and Southern America. They are often confused with the Nicaraguan Slider or Peacock Slider but are usually larger.

Meso-American Sliders have a similar appearance to Nicaraguan Sliders, with dark brown to olive green shells marked with circular orange patterns with dark spots in the middle. Meso-American Sliders have dark brown skin with yellow stripes and yellow or red patches behind their ears.

These semi-aquatic turtles have an omnivorous diet consisting of carrion, crustaceans, small fish, insects, mollusks, and aquatic vegetation such as duckweed.

5. Nicaraguan Slider

Nicaraguan Slider (Trachemys emolli) beling held
Nicaraguan Slider (Trachemys emolli) beling held – source
  • Experience Level: Beginner to Intermediate
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Trachemys emolli
  • Other Names: Nicaraguan Ornate Slider, Peacock Slider
  • Adult Size: 10 to 15 inches (25.5 to 38 cm)
  • Lifespan: 15 to 25 years
  • Average Price Range: $30 to $40

Nicaraguan Sliders are large, semi-aquatic turtles native to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. They inhabit most of Costa Rica aside from some central and southeastern regions. They are a beautiful species and are popular pets.

These stunning turtles are also known as Peacock Sliders thanks to the vibrantly colored circular markings on the tops of their olive-green to dark brown shells. They also have yellowish markings and plastrons with dark brown lines separating the ventral scutes.

Nicaraguan Sliders have a largely carnivorous diet, mainly eating small amphibians, crustaceans, small fish, insects, larvae, and tadpoles. They prefer to inhabit larger streams and lakes.

6. South American Snapping Turtle

South American Snapping Turtle (Chelydra acutirostris)
South American Snapping Turtle (Chelydra acutirostris) – source
  • Experience Level: N/A
  • Family: Chelydridae
  • Scientific Name: Chelydra acutirostris
  • Other Names: South American Snapper
  • Adult Size: 8 to 20 inches (20 to 51 cm)
  • Lifespan: 30 to 50 years
  • Average Price Range: N/A

South American Snapping turtles have recently been separated from Common Snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) as a distinct species. These large aquatic turtles inhabit larger bodies of water in Central and South American countries like Colombia, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.

South American Snappers have a similarly intimidating appearance to Common Snappers. They have powerful, hooked beaks and long tails covered with saw-toothed spines. Their thick shells are dark brown to olive green, with three prominent ridges in the center.

Like their Common cousins, South American Snappers will eat most types of prey such as amphibians, fish, insects, mollusks, smaller turtles, and even waterbirds. They will also eat aquatic vegetation occasionally.

7. Black Wood Turtle

Black River Turtle (Rhinoclemmys funerea) by Racehl Novak
Black River Turtle (Rhinoclemmys funerea) by Racehl Novak
  • Experience Level: Beginner to Intermediate
  • Family: Geoemydidae
  • Scientific Name: Rhinoclemmys funerea
  • Other Names: Black River turtle
  • Adult Size: 12 to 14 inches (30.5 to 35.5 cm)
  • Lifespan: 40 to 60 years
  • Average Price Range: $125 to $150

Black Wood turtles are the largest of the nine Wood turtle species. They are native to Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. In Costa Rica, they can be encountered in the marshes and swamps of the country’s northern half.

Black Wood turtles have domed carapaces that are mostly black, although some individuals will also show dark brown coloration. The tops of their heads are also black, while their chins and necks are yellowish with dark speckles.

These turtles prefer areas with slow-moving waters in woodland areas. They eat an omnivorous diet of crustaceans, small fish, insects, and mollusks as well as plants and carrion.

8. Brown Wood Turtle

Brown Land Turtle (Rhinoclemmys annulata) by Liam Obrian
Brown Land Turtle (Rhinoclemmys annulata) by Liam Obrian
  • Experience Level: N/A
  • Family: Geoemydidae
  • Scientific Name: Rhinoclemmys annulata
  • Other Names: Brown Land turtle, Brown tortoise
  • Adult Size: Approximately 6 to 8 inches
  • Lifespan: Approximately 40 to 60 years
  • Average Price Range: N/A

Not much is known about the elusive Brown Wood turtle. This species is native to parts of Central and South America such as Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Brown Wood turtles inhabit the northern half of Costa Rica in woodland areas. They are not kept as pets.

Brown Wood turtles have dark to light brown shells that have a slightly flat appearance and a sculpted look, especially at the edge of the carapace. They have yellowish plastrons with dark patches.

Brown Wood turtles are a herbivorous species, eating leaves and seeds. They are diurnal and are more active after heavy rainfall. In hotter temperatures, they will look for a slow-moving water source, and at night they will sleep under fallen leaves.

9. Painted Wood Turtle

Painted Wood Turtle (Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima pulcherrima) by Jake Scott
Painted Wood Turtle (Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima pulcherrima) by Jake Scott
  • Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Family: Geoemydidae
  • Scientific Name: Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima pulcherrima
  • Other Names: Ornate Wood turtle
  • Adult Size: 7 to 9 inches (18 to 23 cm)
  • Lifespan: 30+ years
  • Average Price Range: $100 to $200

Painted Wood turtles are beautiful turtles that are commonly kept as pets. There are various subspecies found across Central and South America, but it is the nominate subspecies that is native to western areas of Costa Rica.

Painted Wood turtles are popular due to their stunning shells, which have mottled tan to light brown patterns over darker brown carapaces. These turtles also have vibrant red markings on their shells and body. Painted Wood turtles have yellowish plastrons.

These turtles are omnivorous and will mainly eat fruits and plant matter supplemented with protein from insects and mollusks such as worms.

There are also four species of Sea turtles found in the tropical waters around Costa Rica. The country has numerous Sea turtle protection programs, and none of these turtles can be kept as pets because they’re all Threatened or Endangered.

Many of Costa Rica’s beaches are important nesting sites for Sea turtles. Here’s a quick rundown of each of these four species:

Sea Turtles in Costa Rica

10. Green Sea Turtle

Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)
Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonia mydas
  • Other Names: N/A
  • Adult Size: 3 to 4 feet (90 to 120 cm)
  • Weight: 300 to 400 lbs (135 to 180 kg)
  • Lifespan: 80 to 100 years
  • Conservation Status: Endangered
  • Habitat: Bays and shores along coastlines and open ocean waters, seen during summer months
  • Clutch Size: Around 110 to 115 eggs, with 2 to 5 clutches per breeding season
  • Food: Mostly herbivores, eating algae, seagrasses, and seaweed
  • Appearance: Smooth green to brown shells shaped like hearts, edged in yellow. Cream-colored scaly skin with shades of green

Head to our Green Sea turtle page for more information.

11. Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Scientific Name: Eretmochelys imbricata
  • Other Names: Atlantic Hawksbill turtle
  • Adult Size: 30 to 35 inches (76 to 89 cm)
  • Weight: 100 to 155 lbs (45 to 70 kg)
  • Lifespan: 30 to 50 years
  • Conservation Status: Critically Endangered
  • Habitat: Shallow coastal areas of rocky or tropical waters, reefs, and estuaries
  • Clutch Size: Between 140 to 200 eggs, about 4 clutches per breeding season
  • Food: Omnivores, mainly consuming crustaceans, mollusks, and algae
  • Appearance: Prominent, beak-shaped mouths (like a hawk), oval shells in shades of amber with unique markings. Flippers also have claws at their “elbows”

For more information, check out our Hawksbill Sea turtle page.

12. Leatherback Sea Turtle

Baby Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) going towards the ocean
Baby Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) going towards the ocean
  • Family: Dermochelyidea
  • Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea
  • Other Names: N/A
  • Adult Size: 6 to 7 feet (182 to 213 cm)
  • Weight: 1200 to 1450 lbs (545 to 658 kg)
  • Lifespan: Around 30 years
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable
  • Habitat: Warm waters, mainly shallow, calm bays or lagoons. Nests common on sandy beaches.
  • Clutch Size: Between 100 and 110 eggs
  • Food: Jellyfish is the staple of their diet, but they will also eat other sea creatures
  • Appearance: Their large carapaces are soft, unique among sea turtles, with prominent ridges all the way down. Colors vary between black and dark gray.

For more information, see our Leatherback Sea turtle page.

13. Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

Baby Olive Ridley Sea turtle (Lepidochelys Olivacea) on beach
Baby Olive Ridley Sea turtle (Lepidochelys Olivacea) on beach
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Scientific Name: Lepidochelys Olivacea
  • Other Names: Pacific Ridley sea turtle
  • Adult Size: 24 to 28 inches (61 to 71 cm)
  • Weight: 75 to 110 lbs (34 to 50 kg)
  • Lifespan: Around 30 years
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable
  • Habitat: Warm tropical seas, shallow coastal waters, mass nesting on sandy beaches
  • Clutch Size: Between 75 and 125 eggs
  • Food: Crustaceans, shellfish
  • Appearance: Triangle-shaped heads. Olive green heart-shaped shells. Green to cream plastrons and undersides.

For more information, visit our Olive Ridley Sea turtle page.

Conclusion

Well, that brings our list of turtles in Costa Rica to an end. We’ve covered 13 species found in this ecologically rich country, with nine species of freshwater turtles and four types of Sea turtles.

Most of the species on this list cannot be kept as pets even in the US, while all species are prohibited in Costa Rica itself. If you are thinking of buying one of the available turtles native to Costa Rica, such as the Painted Wood turtle, always try and adopt a specimen from an animal shelter or buy a captive-bred turtle from a registered breeder.

Whether you use this list as a field herping guide in Costa Rica or as a document to help you decide on your next turtle, we hope you liked it. Feel free to leave a comment down below and discuss the turtles of Costa Rica with us!

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