The Vietnamese Leaf Turtle, Geoemyda spengleri

photo by Mary Hopson

Geoemyda spengleri, also known as Vietnamese Leaf Turtle, Black-breasted Leaf Turtle, Chinese Leaf Turtle, Vietnamese wood turtle or Spengler's turtle, is one of the smallest turtles, seldom exceeding 4.5 inches in straight carapace length. The carapace (upper shell) has marginal serrations front and rear, and three keels. It is brown, tan, chestnut or mahogany in color. The plastron (lower shell) is dark brown or black ringed with cream or yellow. The head is olive or brown with some mottling. Females sport a yellow/cream stripe on each side of the head. There is sometimes additional light colored speckling. The skin is brown, dappled with other colors, such as orange, olive, or tan. The feet are partially webbed. G. spengleri has unusual eyes that are large and protruding, with white irises.

Range includes Hainan Island and two other provinces of southern China, and Vietnam. (Although several sources include Sumatra, Borneo and Philippines in the spengleri range, this is probably based on mis-identified juveniles of other species.)

Spengleri are often found at higher elevations. According to some sources with contacts in Asia, spengleri have been seen in northern Vietnam, living on a limestone mountainside that has spring water trickling over it. The Pritchard expedition several years ago saw some in the highlands of central Hainan Island, China. They were found in the undergrowth along forest trails by local tribal villagers.

The species seems to prefer relatively cool temperatures and low light levels. They are primarily terrestrial in nature, but will enter water to drink, soak and defecate. These turtles enjoy burrowing and should be provided with a substrate that will accomodate that preference. A comfortable vivarium for this little turtle will be as large as possible and kept at room temperature. It will include a removable, easily cleaned pool, and a larger land area with some combination of sterile potting soil, sphagnum moss, leaves and/or bark litter (but never cedar chips because they can be toxic.) This species seems to prefer to have plants to hide and burrow under. A hide box of some type may also be appreciated. A full-spectrum reptile light should be provided. A separate basking light is unneeded as this species does not appear seek out the warmth of a basking light, but is more inclined to sun itself in cool conditions. It is important to maintain high humidity as dry air conditions can lead to eye and respiratory infections. This can be accomplished by misting the sphagnum moss and watering the plants in the vivarium daily.

Diet in the wild has not been studied. The turtles probably eat fallen fruits along with insects, worms, snails, etc. Captives do well on an omnivorous diet that leans toward carnivory. Offer a variety of fruits, vegetables, live food (such as crickets and mealworms), and prepared foods (such as trout chow, canned cat food or dog food.) Reluctant eaters can usually be tempted with earthworms and slugs. To assure that the turtle gets necessary vitamins and minerals, use a reptile supplement that includes vitamin D3 and calcium. Powdered supplements can easily be mixed into canned cat or dog food. Cuttlebone may also be left in the vivarium to provide plenty of calcium, as needed.

Spengleri turtles were apparently not seen in the west until 1961, when several were brought to a zoo in East Berlin from North Vietnam. Importation to the United States began in 1980. They are still not very commonly seen for sale, and captive bred specimens are extremely rare. Most Vietnamese leaf turtles found in pet stores were recently taken from the wilds and had to endure poor conditions in the fish markets before the sale. Many imports will be anorexic or develop pneumonia, mouth sores, and other illnesses. Almost all will have parasites requiring immediate treatment. Starvation in the fish markets often results in kidney or liver damage. There is a very high mortality rate among wild caught spengleri. It may be difficult to find captive bred spengleri turtles, and they will cost more to purchase, but knowing that the turtle is healthy (and the savings in veterinary bills!) is worth the effort and the higher price. Unfortunately, there are no significant numbers of captive bred spengleri currently available. This may change as breeding colonies are being established.

Once they are healthy and acclimated to captivity, these little leaf turtles can be excellent pets. They become tame and responsive to their keepers. A large habitat is always preferred, and is absolutely necessary for a breeding pair. However, one individual could live comfortably in a 20 gallon long terrarium setup something like this:

More photos of Chinese Leaf Turtles
Breeding information, and baby pictures!


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

Buskirk, James. 1993. Captive Propagation and Husbandry of the Vietnamese Leaf Turtle (Geoemyda spengleri.) The Vivarium, Vol. 5 No. 3.
[A text only version of this article can be found on the web here.]

DeVosjoli, Philippe. 1999. Notes on Establishing and Breeding the Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle (Geomyda spengleri.) The Vivarium, Vol. 10 No. 1.

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

Gurley, Russ. 1998. Captive Care of Geoemyda spengleri, the Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle. Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group, Article of the Month.

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

Iverson, John. 1992. A revised checklist with distribution maps of the turtles of the world. Privately published, Richmond, Indiana.

Additional Links:
World Chelonian Trust's Black Breasted Leaf Turtle Caresheet
Melissa Kaplan's experience with a visually impaired spengleri turtle.

© 1997 Mary Hopson, Anchorage, AK
This information sheet may be freely copied and distributed.

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