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The giant South American river turtle is one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world. They are highly aquatic; typically, the females only leave the water to bask and lay 50–150 eggs at communal nesting sites during the dry season.
Historically, females gathered together in groups in the tens to hundreds of thousands—a behavior that made them especially vulnerable to human poaching.
A Note from the Caretaker
The giant South American river turtle is a powerful swimmer, and catching one of these turtles for an annual health check can be challenging!
Learn more about the giant South American river turtle! Did you know that these turtles rarely leave the water, except to lay eggs?
This species lives in the Orinoco and Amazon river systems; the nesting range has been greatly reduced due to overharvesting of eggs and hatchlings.
Restricted to the calm waters of large rivers in the dry season, they may move into swamps, lagoons and flooded forests where food is plentiful during the high-water season.
In their natural habitat, these turtles primarily eat fallen fruits and seeds. Other items in their diet include vegetation, aquatic invertebrates and insects.
At the Aquarium, giant South American river turtles are fed sliced fruits, sweet potatoes, nuts, fresh greens and commercial turtle food.
Females can have shells longer than 30 inches and weigh up to 200 pounds. Males are considerably smaller, with a shell length of about 19 inches.
Hatchlings are about 2 inches long.
Once abundant, populations have declined dramatically as a result of the poaching of females, collection of eggs and habitat loss.
This species is listed in Appendix II (threatened in some parts of its range) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and is listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
While hatchlings are preyed upon by a number of animals, especially black vultures, the massive size of adults protects them from most predators. Humans are primarily responsible for this species' decline. In the "heyday" of turtle harvesting, an estimated 48 million eggs were taken each year.
Meet the Expert Ken Howell
As the curator of the Upland Tropical Rain Forest, Amazon River Forest and Australia: Wild Extremes exhibits, Ken starts his day early, walking through each exhibit.
Explore Similar Animals
The National Aquarium—and the aquatic world—is full of amazing animals like this one.