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Indian Flap-Shell Turtle

Indian Flap-Shell Turtle

The Indian flap-shell turtle is a unique reptile and is a type of Indian mud turtle.

Photo: Rahul Alvares,

Its neck, when fully extended, resembles a snake and its tubular nostrils make it look like a close cousin of the pig! Growing up in Goa, I remember the flap-shell turtle always being sought after by villagers. Turtle meat was prized and back then, adult flapshell turtles were openly sold in local markets. Thanks to our wildlife laws, that doesn’t happen anymore. But even then, not all captured flap-shell turtles suffered the same fate. Many people would introduce them into their wells. It’s a known fact that the flapshell turtle reduces organic pollution in aquatic ecosystems by feeding on insects and fragments of dead animals. While the turtles remained prisoners, they often survived very well, with many of them living many years in these man-made ecosystems.

A wild flap-shell turtle held the right way up will usually try to claw its way out of your hands. Held upside down it is more likely to withdraw its neck and all four legs back into its shell and bend the front and back edges of its plastron (the lower shell of the turtle) to completely hide its retracted head and limbs. Skin flaps on the plastron neatly cover the hind limbs and the tail. These skin flaps are unique to the Indian mud turtle and distinguish it from other species of freshwater turtles of the Indian subcontinent. Incidentally, if a turtle is left on its back for a minute or so, it will cautiously push out its long neck and use its nose to pivot and flip itself over onto its belly and then scamper away!

Unlike the tortoise, the flap-shell turtle has fully webbed digits*. It also has a rubbery shell, which doesn’t give the same level of protection that the hard shell of a tortoise does. While it is a strong swimmer, it spends much of its life burrowing and tends to live in shallow waterbodies with sand or mud bottoms. When hunting, it often lies half buried in the mud and suddenly shoots out its neck to snap up unsuspecting prey. It eats almost everything from water plants to frogs, fish, crustaceans and snails.

During the drier seasons, it burrows into dry riverbeds and can go long periods without food. The skin flaps on the plastron assist in ‘sealing’ the turtle and reducing moisture loss. Although many turtles die during drought conditions, some have been reported to have survived up to 160 days.

Over the years, I have often encountered flap-shell turtles in the monsoons. Some were very small (the size of a small biscuit) and obviously only a few days old. Others were bigger than a dinner plate and weighed about three to four kilos. The specimen in the photograph is a smallish adult weighing about two kilos.

Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria.

J.C. Daniel’s book Amphibians and Reptiles of India mentions that there are two races of the mud turtle: The Indo-Gangetic flap-shell turtle, which has yellow spots on its head and the Peninsular flap-shell turtle, which has black streaks on its head and is the one captured in the photograph. Mud turtles can lay two to three clutches of eggs a year. The clutches, which comprise of 2-16 eggs, are buried in the soil for protection.

Author: Rahul Alvares, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, VOL. XXXVI, NO. 5, May 2016.


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