If you’re a long-time Tet Zoo reader you might remember the article about giant Asian softshell turtles from November 2007. That article – which mostly focused on the several Chitra species – was colourfully titled ‘The goat-eating hot water bottle turtles’. As you may recall, the ‘goat-eating’ bit was inspired by a comment made in a turtle book (David Alderton’s Turtles & Tortoises of the World): according to this source, Chitra ‘may even attack goats, overturning them’ (Alderton 1988, p. 165). That always seemed like a puzzling statement, but I decided to run with it. As kindly pointed out by Jeannot Maha’a, ‘goat’ in the book is almost definitely a typo for ‘boat’ (look where g and b are on the keyboard). Oh well, it was a nice idea while it lasted…
Anyway, Asia isn’t the only continent with giant softshells. There are also giant African species (or one anyway: the African softshell Trionyx triunguis), and in an October 2009 post on the SA Reptiles discussion board, forum-user Herphabitat posted several photos of a huge, dead softshell he and colleagues discovered on a peninsula in the mouth of the Congo River. From a distance, they first assumed that the carcass was that of a dead sea turtle (perhaps a Leatherback Dermochelys coriacea). On discovering that it was a softshell, they assumed that it had died further up-river and had then been washed down to the edge of the Atlantic. However, this assumption isn’t warranted, as T. triunguis inhabits brackish waters in places, and has even been captured 3 or 4 km out at sea (this was close to the mouth of the Gaboon River: Ernst & Barbour 1989). T. triunguis is a widespread softshell, occurring from coastal Turkey, Israel, Lebanon and Syria all the way west to the Atlantic coast of the Congo region.
As you can see from Herphabitat’s photos, the animal was a pretty impressive beast (his photos of the animal’s skull [one shown below] confirm, by the way, that it was indeed a T. triunguis). Its length along the curve of the carapace (known as the CCL, or curved carapace length) was 55 cm, and the total length was given as 106 cm. Its mass was estimated at over 60 kg. Very big indeed – and bigger than most measurements given in the turtle books. Ernst & Barbour (1989), for example, give a maximum length of 95 cm for this species. However, some sources give a maximum length of 112 cm. Again, I hope this brings home the point that softshells – which are relatively familiar turtles to many people – aren’t all dinner-plate-sized or smaller; some are giants, among the largest of turtles.
While we’re here… it’s been suggested that there might be monster examples of T. triunguis whose lengths well exceed 1 m. In his 1987 book on the mokele-mbembe, Roy Mackal wrote about the ‘Ndendeki’, a giant turtle of Lake Tele (and perhaps the surrounds) in the Congo. Local people didn’t know much about it – other than that it was a turtle and that it was very large – but an estimated diameter of a ridiculous 4 or 5 m was suggested (Mackal 1987, p. 267). Mackal and his colleague Marcellin Agnagna both assumed that exaggeration had occurred, and that a more reasonable size might be about 2 m (this is for length and not diameter). That’s still pretty incredible – though certainly not impossible – and really needs verification [adjacent Ndendeki reconstruction from Mackal (1987, p. 271)].
Anyway, full credit to Herphabitat for his excellent photos. Please visit the SA Reptiles post to see more images and more information. Thanks to Markus Bühler for bringing this to my attention.
Coming next: the yowie!
For previous Tet Zoo posts on amazing turtles see…
- Gilbert White’s pet tortoise, and what is ‘grey literature’ anyway?
- The goat-eating hot water bottle turtles
- Hard-shelled sea turtles and a diet of glass
- Terrifying sex organs of male turtles
Refs – –
Alderton, D. 1988. Turtles & Tortoises of the World. Blandford, London.
Ernst, C. H. & Barbour, R. W. 1989. Turtles of the World. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D. C. & London.
Mackal, R. P. 1987. A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-Mbembe. E. J.