Home | Turtles & Tortoises | The Yellow-Spotted Sideneck Turtle , Podocnemis unifilis, in the Wild and Captivity: Natural History – Part 1

The Yellow-Spotted Sideneck Turtle , Podocnemis unifilis, in the Wild and Captivity: Natural History – Part 1

The Yellow-Spotted Sideneck Turtle (Terecay, Yellow-Spotted Amazon River Turtle), Podocnemis unifilis, and several relatives were popular pets in the 1970’s, but soon became unavailable due to over-collection (largely for the food trade) and the resulting limitations on importations.  Australian sidenecks soon filled the void, and remain in the spotlight today.

However, captive breeding efforts are beginning to show some promise, and the yellow-spotted and other South American species are poised, it seems, to re-enter the per trade.  These sizable turtles are not for everyone, but we need to learn more about them…hobbyists with some experience and space might help greatly in that regard.  Hopefully the following information will help you to decide.


Sideneck turtles are classified in the Testudine sub-order Pleurodira, while all other turtles are placed in the sub-order Cryptodira.  Approximately 75 species of sideneck turtles are found in Australia (where they form the vast majority of the aquatic turtle fauna), South America east of the Andes, sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar.

The vast majority of the world’s turtles draw their heads straight back into the shell, largely concealing it within. Sideneck turtles retract their heads on an angle, so that the head is pointing sideways when withdrawn, and both it and the neck remain partially exposed.   This limits the protective value of the shell, and may explain why there are no terrestrial sideneck turtles (mammalian predators would easily prey upon them) and why, outside of Australia, they have been largely out-competed by typical aquatic turtles.

Physical Description

The domed carapace (upper shell) averages 12 inches in length, although particularly large females can attain 18 inches.  The shell is attractively colored in muted olive, gray or brown, and bright yellow-orange spots mark the head.  These fade with age but often remain discernable through adulthood.

Males are the smaller sex and have spotted heads with greenish eyes while females have plain, buff-colored heads and black eyes.


This turtle inhabits northern and central South America, including the Caribbean drainages of Guyana, French Guiana, Venezuela and Columbia.  It also occurs in the upper tributaries of the Amazon River in Columbia, southern Venezuela, eastern Ecuador, northeastern Peru, northern Bolivia and Brazil.  There are unconfirmed reports of small populations in Trinidad and Tobago.


Yellow-spotted sidenecks favor quiet, slow-moving waters such as ponds, lakes, swamps, flooded llanos (grasslands), oxbows and the backwaters of larger rivers.

Status in the Wild

This species’ status is largely unknown, but it is collected in many areas for food.   It is listed on Appendix II of CITES and designated as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN.

Click: The Yellow-Spotted Sideneck Turtle , Podocnemis unifilis, in the Wild and Captivity: Natural History – Part 2, to read the second part of this article.

Image referenced from Wikipedia.



  1. avatar

    how does the yellow spotted sideneck turtle communicate?

    • avatar

      Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog.

      As with most turtles, sidenecks communicate largely through behavior. One may snap at another to warn it away, or simply push a smaller turtle from a favorite basking site.

      Males communicate their interest in mating with females by snapping at the rear of their shells and chasing them about. Females that are ready to mate eventually stop swimming away from the males and allow themselves to be “caught”. Some turtles have a courtship ritual – for example, male red-eared sliders and painted turtles use their elongated front nails to lightly stroke the faces of prospective mates.

      Most turtles also use a loud hissing sound to communicate anger or fear.

      A very few turtles communicate mating readiness by color change. In the Asian painted terrapin (Batagur borneoensis), the male’s head develops red stripes during the mating season. The heads of male Asian river turtles (Batagur baska) turn jet black when they are ready to mate. I have cared for both of theses turtles in captivity – the color change is very dramatic (not to mention surprising!). Males of both species also communicate by engaging in a sort of ritual battle – they face one another under water with open mouths and seem to expel water at each other. I haven’t learned what they are trying to “prove or demonstrate” by this…but I’m sure the turtles know!

      I hope this was useful to you – please let me know if you need anything further.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    what is being done to protect the yellow spotted sideneck turtle?

    • avatar

      Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog.

      This turtle is listed on Appendix II of CITES (the Committee on International Trade in Endangered Species). This means that a strict limit is set on the number of turtles that may be exported from countries which are CITES members. As regards the yellow spotted sideneck, these countries are Peru, Guyana and Suriname. Protection in other countries where the turtle occurs is up to each individual country (most do not protect this species).

      These turtles are “ranched” (eggs are collected and hatched in captivity, with a certain number of young turtles being kept and the others returned to the wild) in Peru, which in theory cuts down on the collection of wild individuals.

      The IUCN (World Conservation Union) lists this species as “Vulnerable”. This means that wild populations are in trouble, and that conservation action is needed. It does not, however, regulate trade in any way.

      A number of zoos, (i.e. the Staten Island Zoo in NYC) and increasing numbers of pet keepers are working to breed this turtle in captivity.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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