The Asian giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii), also known as Cantor’s giant softshell turtle and the frog-faced softshell turtle, is a captivating species of freshwater turtle native to the Southeast Asian region. This incredible creature spends a staggering 95% of its life buried and motionless beneath the sand, with only its eyes and mouth protruding, creating an air of mystery and intrigue around its existence.
Within the genus Pelochelys, which includes P. bibroni and P. signifera, P. cantorii stands apart as it is not found in New Guinea. However, the distinction between these species remains a subject of ongoing study, hinting that P. cantorii may comprise several distinct taxa.
The Asian giant softshell turtle boasts a broad head, small eyes near the tip of its snout, and a smooth olive-colored carapace. Juveniles may exhibit dark spots on their carapaces and heads, with yellow markings. While there have been claims of individuals growing up to 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) in length, the maximum size remains uncertain. Realistically, their carapace length typically ranges from 70 to 100 centimeters (28 to 39 inches). This species is one of the few giant softshell turtles across various genera known to reach exceptionally large sizes, exceeding 100 kg (220 lb) in mass.
Behavior and Reproduction
The Asian giant softshell turtle is an ambush predator with a primarily carnivorous diet, feeding on crustaceans, mollusks, fish, and occasionally aquatic plants. Remarkably, it spends most of its life buried in the sand, surfacing only twice a day to breathe. During February or March, it lays clutches of 20 to 28 eggs, each around 3.0 to 3.6 centimeters (1.2 to 1.4 inches) in diameter, on riverbanks.
Notably, there are noted differences in neural bone count between specimens of P. cantorii found in the Philippines and those in mainland Asia.
The specific name, “cantorii,” pays tribute to Danish zoologist Theodore Edward Cantor.
Geographic Range and Habitat
The Asian giant softshell turtle primarily inhabits inland, slow-moving freshwater rivers and streams in Southeast Asia. Evidence also suggests its presence in coastal areas. Its range spans eastern and southern India, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, eastern and southern China, the Philippines (Luzon and Mindanao), and Indonesia (Kalimantan, Java, and Sumatra).
Unfortunately, the Asian giant softshell turtle faces dire circumstances. It is classified as critically endangered by the IUCN, largely due to habitat destruction. In the early 2000s, it had vanished from much of its range. However, a 2007 survey in Cambodia provided hope by revealing a population along a 48-kilometer stretch of the Mekong River.
The Asian giant softshell turtle, with its enigmatic lifestyle and precarious existence, represents a true marvel of nature. As it teeters on the brink of extinction, efforts to conserve and protect this remarkable species have never been more critical. Preserving the biodiversity of our planet means safeguarding the future of these unique creatures and the ecosystems they call home.