Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle Facts

Scientific Name: Rafetus swinhoei

Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle
Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle.

Phuongcacanh at Vietnamese Wikipedia / Wikimedia Commons / CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Yangtze giant softshell turtles are part of class Reptilia and can be found in wetlands and large lakes in Asia. These turtles are the largest freshwater turtle in the world, but they are also on the brink of extinction. There are only three known individuals in the world: one at China’s Suzhou Zoo, another one in Vietnam’s Hoan Kiem Lake, and a third confirmed in the wild in 2018. The last known female died in April 2019.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Rafetus swinhoei
  • Common Names: Red River turtles
  • Order: Testudines
  • Basic Animal Group: Reptile
  • Size: Approximately 3 feet in length and over 2 feet in width
  • Weight: Approximately 150 to 275 pounds
  • Life Span: Over 100 years
  • Diet: Fish, crabs, snails, water hyacinth, frogs, and green rice leaves
  • Habitat: Freshwater, wetlands, large lakes
  • Population: 3
  • Conservation Status: Critically Endangered

Description

Yangtze giant softshell turtles, also called red river turtles, are the largest freshwater turtle species in the world. They can grow to over 39 inches by 28 inches and weigh up to 275 pounds. These turtles are gray with light gray or yellow spots. The term soft-shell comes from the fact that their shells lack horny scutes and instead is made of leathery skin. They have retractable necks and three claws on each front foot. Due to their large size and skin, people have hunted them as a source of food and as an ingredient in traditional medicine.

Habitat and Distribution

The natural habitat for these turtles are wetlands and large lakes. They used to be abundant in the Red River of China, Vietnam, and the lower Yangtze River floodplain. As of 2019, there are only 3 known individuals of this species. One male and one female were held in China’s Suzhou Zoo, but the female died in April 2019. One male lives in Vietnam’s Hoan Kiem Lake, and another individual was spotted in Dong Mo Lake near Hanoi.

Diet and Behavior

According to fishermen who caught several individuals, Yangtze giant softshell turtles’ diet consists of fish, crabs, snails, water hyacinth, frogs, and green rice leaves based on the contents of their stomachs. These turtles have slow growth, late maturity, and long life spans of upwards of 100 years. The survival rate for eggs and juveniles is very low, but survival increases dramatically for subadults and adults. Yangtze giant softshell turtles produce between 20 and 80 eggs every year, of which only a few ever reach maturity.

Reproduction and Offspring

Attempts to breed the male and female residing in China’s Suzhou Zoo since their introduction in 2008 have all been unsuccessful. Despite the female being relatively young and reliably producing eggs, her eggs all remained infertile. Scientists think it is because the male sustained severe damage to its shell and reproductive organs in a fight with another male years ago. Because of this damage, scientists performed five artificial insemination procedures since 2015 in hopes of procuring viable eggs. On the fifth attempt, the male recovered normally but the female did not recover from the anesthesia despite 24 hours of emergency care. The ovarian tissue of the female has been frozen for future work, but as of 2019, the last female of this species has died. Scientists are currently searching in the lakes near Hanoi to find any other potential females.

Threats

Scientists have determined that the largest threats to these turtles are hunting for meat and medicine, as well as pollution in their natural habitats and downstream habitat destruction after the construction of the Madushan Hydropower Dam in 2007. Breeding areas for these turtles, which include sandbars, have turned into steep slopes that make it impossible for these turtles to breed in the wild.

Conservation Status

Yangtze giant softshell turtles are designated as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are virtually extinct in the wild, with the exception of one individual spotted in the Dong Mo Lake.

Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtles and Humans

In Vietnam, these animals have great cultural significance as people in Hanoi revere this creature as a living god.

Sources

  • "Convention On International Trade In Endangered Species Of Wild Fauna And Flora". U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service, 2013, https://www.fws.gov/international/cites/cop16/cop16-proposal-listing-of-trionychidae-family.pdf.
  • Quinzi, Tyler. "The Most Endangered Turtle In The World". International Rivers, 2017, https://www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/435/the-most-endangered-turtle-in-the-world.
  • "Swinhoe's Softshell Turtle". Asian Turtle Program, 2014, http://www.asianturtleprogram.org/pages/species_pages/Rafetus_swinhoei/Rafetus_swinhoei.htm.
  • "Wildlife Conservationists Remain Steadfast In Efforts To Prevent Extinction Of The Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle". Turtle Survival Alliance, 2019, https://turtlesurvival.org/wildlife-conservationists-remain-steadfast-in-efforts-to-prevent-extinction-of-the-giant-yangtze-soft-shell-turtle/.
  • "Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle". EDGE Of Existence, http://www.edgeofexistence.org/species/yangtze-giant-softshell-turtle/.
  • "Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle". IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species, 2016, https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/39621/97401328#conservation-actions.