Species Spotlight: Painted Terrapin

Painted Terrapin (Batagur borneoensis)

Countries of Origin: Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand

IUCN Status: Critically Endangered

Habitat: Fresh and brackish water tidal rivers, mangrove forests, brackish estuaries, and the coastal marine zone

Size:  Males ≤ 45 cm (~18 in.)  Females ≤ 76 cm (~30 in.)

Fast Facts:

– Common names include Painted Terrapin, Saw-jawed Turtle, Painted Batagur, Three-striped Batagur, Tuntong (Indonesia/Brunei), Tuntung (Indonesia), Beluku (Indonesia), Tuntung Laut (Malaysia), Tao Lai Teen Bet (Thailand)

– Males and females exhibit sexual dimorphism, whereby differing forms or characteristics are expressed between the sexes. In Painted Terrapins, the female is larger than the male. The species also exhibits sexual dichromatism, a type of sexual dimorphism, whereby the sexes differ in color. Female terrapins exhibit a gray-brown carapace with muted gray-black markings and gray-brown skin with a muted orange-brown cranial cap. Males exhibit a gray carapace with distinct gray-black markings and gray skin with a more distinct orange-red cranial cap fringed with dark gray-black.

  • During breeding season males express more vibrant colors, characterized by a gray-white carapace featuring distinct black markings, varying shades of gray skin, and a white head featuring a dark “mustache” on the upper beak and a red cranial cap bordered by dark gray-black, giving them a distinctive clown-like appearance. In some populations, males may additionally feature red on the neck. When the breeding season concludes, the muted coloration of non-breeding season gradually returns.
Painted Terrapins exhibit sexual dimorphism, whereby differing forms or characteristics are expressed between the sexes. The male (left) and female (right) are both in breeding coloration. Differences in color between sexes is a type of sexual dimorphism known as sexual dichromatism. Photos: Satucita Foundation

– The Painted Terrapin is named for the bright coloration exhibited by males during breeding season.

– The European term terrapin is believed to phonetically originate from torope, the word for turtle in the Powhatan tribe of the indigenous Algonquin peoples of coastal Virginia, United States. It would later be applied to the box turtle genus Terrapene, and to the Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin), the only turtle in the United States to exclusively inhabit coastal brackish environments. In the genus Batagur, of which there are six species, this common name is applied to the three species whose habitat and activities include brackish rivers, estuaries, and coastal marine environments.

– Primarily herbivorous; feeds on aquatic plants and grasses, overhanging and fallen leaves and fruit of figs and mangroves, and occasionally forages for aquatic invertebrates.

– Breeding and nesting season varies by population location and is likely linked to seasonal weather activity, including equatorial wet/dry seasons.

  • Populations may breed and nest from June-August or November-February.
  • Females nest on mainland coastal marine or island beaches.
  • Females may lay up to 28 eggs per clutch, averaging 10-12, and may lay multiple clutches in a year depending on location.
  • Hatchlings disperse inland to fresh or low-salinity environments after hatching on brackish and marine water beaches.

– Formerly a widespread and abundant species, intensified poaching in the last 40 years has led to precipitous declines; some populations are now extirpated.

  • It is estimated that the wild population has been reduced by at least 80%.
  • The Painted Terrapin is protected from collection in every country in which it naturally occurs.
  • International trade regulated under Appendix II of CITES.

Threats: Poaching of adults for food and pets and eggs for food, incidental capture in fishing nets, coastal habitat destruction, and sand mining.

  • Note: In areas predominated by Islam, the poaching of adult terrapins for food is rare, however, the poaching of eggs as a source of high protein still occurs.

How you can help: Turtle Survival Alliance financially, logistically, and technically supports the Satucita Foundation’s Painted Terrapin conservation program in the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra, Sumatra, Indonesia. This program, led by Joko Guntoro, performs nest patrols on beaches of Aceh Tamiang and Langkat regencies from December – February. Nests located by the patrol teams are excavated and the eggs relocated to protected terrapin hatcheries in the villages of Pusung Kapal and Jaring Halus. After hatching the young terrapins are reared for more than half a year to a size large enough to give them a better chance of survival in the wild. The terrapins are then released into their native habitat in an effort to bolster the wild population.

The wild juvenile Painted Terrapins seen basking on this mangrove tree were headstarted at the Satucita Foundation’s Painted Terrapin Information Center and released into their native habitat. Photo: Joko Guntoro

In addition to the rear-and-release project, the Satucita Foundation promotes Painted Terrapin awareness in Aceh and North Sumatra through educational outreach at their Painted Terrapin Information Centre in Pusung Kapal, ecotourism, and engaging coastal communities, including focused campaigns toward fishermen. They also engage in waste cleanup and restoration of nesting beaches and coastal mangrove forests, rescue and provide aid to terrapins incidentally caught in fishing gear, and perform population monitoring surveys. In North Sumatra, the Satucita Foundation and Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BBKSDA), with aid from TSA, are investigating the merits and potential of a long-term captive breeding program at the Karang Gading Langkat Timur Laut Wildlife Reserve. Hatchlings produced and headstarted at the Wildlife Reserve and released will serve to supplement the region’s wild population.

You can help us further these activities in Sumatra and expand our impact for Painted Terrapins by supporting this and other programs like it!

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