Big-headed Turtle (Platysternon megacephalum)

*** Update: Read about the outcomes of our proposals at CoP16.

CITES Status | Taxonomy | Description | Habitat | Distribution | Threats


CITES Status


Big-headed turtle, Credit: Hanumann CC BY 2.0

Appendix II since 2003.  Proposed pdfby the United States and Viet Nam for uplisting to Appendix I at CoP16.


Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Family: Platysternidae
Genus: Platysternon
Species: megacephalum


The big-headed turtle is appropriately named.  Its head is so large that it cannot be withdrawn into its shell. The yellowish or olive-brown head is triangular and flattened, with powerful jaws and a hooked beak. This medium-sized species has a top shell (carapace) which measures up to 18 cm (about 7 inches) and a scaly tail that is nearly as long.  The big-headed turtle rarely swims, instead relying on its powerful legs, strong claws and a long and agile tail to move over the rocky stream habitat.


The big-headed turtle inhabits unpolluted, clear, cool, rocky mountain streams within forested areas and also within the bordering riparian habitats (the banks of the stream).  Streams in Thailand inhabited by big headed turtles may dry out for several weeks at the height of the dry season.  Local park rangers believe that the turtles may travel over land in search of streams with water.  Connectivity of the streams where the species occurs may provide critical movement and dispersal corridors.


The big-headed turtle is found in Cambodia, China (including SAR Hong Kong), Lao PDR (Laos), northern Burma (Myanmar), northern and western Thailand, and northern Viet Nam.


Big-headed turtle populations face serious threats from commercial harvest for human consumption and, there has been a recent documented rise in the number of hatchlings for sale in pet markets, because of their vivid colors.  The species continues to garner high prices in the international pet trade and in food markets. Furthermore, it is believed that most if not all of the specimens found in trade have been collected from the wild, since this species does not breed well in captivity.  Habitat destruction (deforestation, hydro-electric dams and stream liming) is also considered a threat in some areas, notably China.

Additional Information

  • Check out our fact sheet pdf to learn how CITES can help protect the big-headed turtle.
  • Read the proposal pdf submitted by the United States and China for consideration at CoP16.
  • To learn about the unsustainable turtle trade and CITES' efforts to regulate it, read Shell-Shocked: Trade in Turtles Threatens Species pdf, an article published in the Winter 2013 Issue of FWS News.
  • To read the entire FWS News spotlight on CITES, visit our Articles page.