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  Text and photos by Nick Baker, unless otherwise credited.
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Yellow-headed Temple Turtle

Fig 1

Fig 2

Fig 3

Fig 4














Species : Heosemys annandalii
Maximum Carapace Length : 50 cm

The Yellow-headed Temple Turtle only occurs in Southeast Asia, where it inhabits slow-flowing rivers, canals, freshwater ponds and flooded fields. In its native habitats it is considered to be endangered, however there are captive specimens in many temple ponds, and the species is often released into non-native areas.

It feeds almost exclusively on aquatic vegetation, supplemented by fallen fruits when available.

It has a strongly domed, relatively smooth, dark grey carapace. The plastron is yellow or orange in colour, with black blotches. Its forehead, jaws and neck are yellow with darker bands, and the upper jaw bears two sharply pointed projections or cusps. The feet are large and strongly webbed.

The images shown here were taken in a captive breeding project at the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB), near Kbal Spean, Cambodia.

Cambodia was once considered the stronghold for this species, particularly the huge lake of Tonle Sap. This is a vast body of freshwater in central Cambodia which annually floods during the wet season : at such times its surface area increases from 2,500 square kilometres to around 16,000 square kilometres. As a consequence, forests and other low-lying habitats at the margin of the lake are submerged under many metres of silty water.

Davidson (2006) concluded that Tonle Sap  supports internationally significant populations of this species and was the single most important area for its conservation. Platt et al (2008), who surveyed Tonle Sap between 2000 and 2001, described the problem of over-harvesting of the species for commercial export.

It is not clear how the population of this species has fared in Tonle Sap in the last decade.

The Yellow-headed Temple Turtle has a fragmented distribution in parts of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and parts of northern Peninsular Malaysia. It may also be present in southern Burma.

Fig 1 : Adult specimen in pristine condition, with high domed carapace and typical yellow markings.

Fig 2 : Close-up of the head and neck showing the distinctive zig-zag shape of the upper jaw line, formed by the presence of two pointed projections or cusps.

Figs 3 and 4 : Seasonally flooded forest at the margin of Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia. Despite over-harvesting, such habitat may still be a relative stronghold for the Yellow-headed Temple Turtle.

Thanks to Christel Griffioen, ACCB, for assistance.

References : H12, H18

Davidson, P. J. (2006). The biodiversity of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve: 2005 status review. Wildlife Conservation Society (unpublished report to UNDP/GEF Tonle Sap Conservation Project), Phnom Penh.

Platt, S. G., Sovannara, H., Kheng, L., Holloway, R., Stuart, B. L., & Rainwater, T. R. (2008). Biodiversity, exploitation, and conservation of turtles in the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve, Cambodia, with notes on reproductive ecology of Malayemys subtrijuga. Journal Information, 7(2).

Links :

Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity