South American flat-headed turtle, Platemys platycephala

Photo by Keith

Also known as the "twist-necked turtle," the Platemys platycephala is a hardy, attractive turtle that rarely exceeds 6 inches in length. It is a side-necked turtle whose genus name means "flat turtle," descriptive of its low profile carapace. It has two keels bordering a deep medial groove. The carapace is brown, with markings in a darker shade. The plastron is dark with a yellow border. The bridge is yellow with a dark stripe. The species name "platycephala" means flat-headed. The head is usually some shade of yellow or orange on top and dark brown or black on the sides, with darker markings closer to the body. The legs are relatively small and weak, and the feet are partially webbed. There are two subspecies, P .p. platycephala and P. p. melanonota, which is characterized by overall darker colorings and markings.

The twist-necked turtle lives in tropical river drainages of northern South America: Venezula, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, the Guyanas, and the Amazon river drainage areas of Brazil. In spite of the webbed feet, they are not strong swimmers and stay in shallow areas of swamps, heavily vegetated ponds and slow moving streams.

To create a comfortable vivarium for the twist-necked turtle, start with a 20 gallon long aquarium (or larger.) Add 4 - 8 inches of water, and build a land area with flat rocks in a third to a half of the area. P. platycephala are most comfortable at 75 - 80 degrees F. An underwater heater is required to maintain the correct temperature range. These rainforest creatures requires high humidity. They spend most of the time in shallow water that is heavily vegetated. Sphagnum moss at the edge of the land area will help maintain the humidity, provide a natural look, and lower the pH of the water, which seems to be beneficial for the turtle. These turtles walk about on land, but are not known to bask, so a reptile light may be sufficient. An additional basking light may be helpful, however, for maintaining an air temperature above 76 degrees. If no filtration system is used, the water must be syphoned and replaced two or three times each week. Feeding the turtle in a separate container will help keep the vivarium cleaner.

The flat-headed sideneck turtle is primarily carnivorous and generally prefers to eat in the water. Snails, small fish, worms and insects are staples in the wild. In addition to live food, captives readily take floating food sticks designed for aquatic turtles. Juveniles in the wild are also known to eat vegetation, however adults seldom, if ever, do this.

Because of the relatively small muscles of the legs, it is normal for this species to appear weak, even when no illness is present. It is also a poor swimmer. The land area should form a shallow ramp to prevent the turtle from flipping over in an attempt to climb out of the water. If this turtle overturns in the water, drowning is a real possibility.

The twist-necked turtle is an attractive, friendly and hardy pet. Unfortunately, there are very few people currently breeding them in captivity, so virtually all of the P. platycephala sold in pet stores are wild caught specimens.


Bartlett, R. D. & Bartlett, Patricia P. 1996. Turtles and Tortoises: A Complete Pet Owner's Manual. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., Hauppauge, NY.

Ernst, C. H. and Barbour, R. W. 1989. Turtles of the World. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Highfield, A. C. 1996. Practical Encyclopedia of Keeping and Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. Carapace Press, London, England.

Pritchard, P. C. H. 1979. Encyclopedia of Turtles. TFH Publications, Neptune, New Jersey.

More info at the California Turtle and Tortoise Club website and close-up photo at the British Chelonia Group.

© Mary Hopson, Anchorage, AK
This information sheet may be freely copied and distributed.

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