Big-headed turtle

Platysternon megacephalum

NZ Big Headed Turtle 4 23 HR 11
IUCN Conservation Status –
Least Concern
Extinct In The Wild

Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Family: Platysternidae

You’ll find our big-headed turtle in the Tropical House.

The big-headed turtle is a species of freshwater turtle native to China, Laos and Vietnam. They are primarily aquatic and spend most of their time in rivers and streams.

As their name suggests, these turtles have large, flattened heads that are roughly the same size as their shells. Their scientific name, Platysternon megacephalum, means “large-headed flat-breast” in Latin.

This species are omnivorous and feed on a variety of foods, including insects, crustaceans, fish and aquatic plants.

Interesting facts!

  • These turtles have a unique defensive behaviour where they will tuck their head and legs into their shell, close their eyes, and emit a foul-smelling musk if threatened.
  • While primarily aquatic, they are also capable of climbing trees and have been observed basking on overhanging branches.
  • Big-headed turtles are able to absorb oxygen through their skin, which allows them to remain underwater for extended periods of time.
  • They are considered one of the most evolutionarily distinct turtle species, meaning they are genetically unique and divergent from other turtle species.


The big-headed turtle is currently listed as a Critically Endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The species is threatened primarily by habitat loss, as their freshwater riverine habitats are degraded or destroyed due to damming, water pollution and deforestation. In addition to this, these turtles are highly sought after for the pet trade as well as use in traditional medicine.

Conservation efforts for the big-headed turtle include protecting critical habitats, reducing pollution and other threats to freshwater ecosystems, and regulating the trade in wild-caught turtles. Ex-situ breeding programs have also been established to help maintain genetic diversity and ensure the survival of the species in the face of continuing threats.