Magdalena River turtle
From Medellin, Colombia
CITES Appendix II (CITES)[2]
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Suborder: Pleurodira
Family: Podocnemididae
Genus: Podocnemis
P. lewyana
Binomial name
Podocnemis lewyana
Duméril, 1852
Range in red

Podocnemis coutinhii Göldi, 1886

Illustration from 1852
Illustration from 1852

The Magdalena River turtle, or Rio Magdalena river turtle, (Podocnemis lewyana) is a species of turtle in the family Podocnemididae,[3] which diverged from other turtles in the Cretaceous Period, 100 million years ago.[4] It is endemic to northern Colombia, where its home range consists of the Sinú, San Jorge, Cauca, and Magdalena river basins.[5]

The species has been classified as "Critically Endangered" by the IUCN in 2015 and is considered the most threatened species of the family Podocnemididae.[6][7] In less than 25 years, the species exhibited a population decline of over 80%.[4] The decline is attributed to habitat destruction, pollution, over-harvest, commercial exploitation, hydrological changes due to electrical generation facilities, and climate change.[5] While early conservation attempts were unsuccessful or unenforced, there has been a resurgence in studies aimed at discovering the most effective approaches.[8]


Magdalena River turtles exhibit sexual dimorphism.[9] Both males and females have a shell composed of shield-like plates that are primarily brown in color.[4] Their necks extend to a robust head.[4]

Males have grayish-brown head scales, while females display head scales more reddish-brown in color.[9] Adult males, on average, weigh 1.6 kg and measure 24.6 cm in carapace length.[6] Whereas females, on average, weigh 5.6 kg and measure 37 cm in carapace length.[6]

The species is regarded as having a mostly herbivorous diet, however opportunistic insectivorous behavior has been observed.[9] At times, juveniles pursue piscivorous behavior.[9] Average life span is 10–15 years in the wild.[6]



Magdalena River turtles are iteroparous.[5] Males sexually mature at 3–4 years old, while females mature at 5–6 years old.[6] Females nest in the sandy riverbanks that result from areas of shallow water.[8]

There are two nesting seasons: December–January and June–July.[8] It is unclear if individual females nest during both seasons in the same year.[4] Higher egg counts are observed in the June–July nesting season.[8]

While average egg weight is significantly greater in the December–January nesting season.[8] Therefore, researchers have proposed it is equally vital to protect both seasons, as egg weight is positively correlated to hatching weight.[8]

Average clutch size is 22 eggs.[4] The embryos within the eggs have temperature-dependent sex determination.[10] The species' pivotal temperature (Tpiv), incubation temperature that produces 1:1 sex ratio, is 33.4 °C.[10] Incubation temperatures below the pivotal temperature produce a greater percentage of male hatchlings, while temperatures above produce a greater percentage of female hatchlings.[10] Concerns have been raised about the effects of climate change on this evolved developmental strategy.[10]


Among freshwater turtles, podocnemidids have among the longest aquatic migratory patterns, rarely leaving the water except to bask.[7] Their average home range spans between 0.3 and 14.6 ha.[6] Movement patterns are predicated on sex, body size, food availability, habitat quality, season, reproductive status, and life stage.[7]

Seasonal movements are most prominent due to changing water levels.[7] Research has shown increased movement to deeper waters, likely as a result of climate change.[10]



As of 2018, 37% of all freshwater and terrestrial turtle species found in Colombia were classified as "Threatened".[11] Despite legislation passed in 1964 aimed at protecting these species (Ministry of Agriculture Resolution No. 0214-1964), their populations have continually decreased.[11] While many anthropogenic factors have contributed to the decline of Magdalena River turtles, over-harvest and climate change are the most prominent.[5] Over-harvest results from human demand for Magdalena River turtle consumption.[4]

Locals believe that feeding on the turtles offer many medicinal qualities.[4] These include easing pregnancy recovery, curing diseases, boosting strength and longevity, and creating natural aphrodisiacs.[4] Climate change has led to discernible changes in temperature-dependent sex determination and movement patterns.[10][7] It has also contributed to nesting site flooding and other habitat alterations.[7]

While anthropogenic causes are most pronounced, several life history factors contribute to the Magdalena River turtles endangerment, as well.[5] High rates of mortality are seen in eggs, hatchlings, and juveniles.[5] Despite their high rates of survival as subadults and adults, their slow, r-selected growth means it takes a while for those stages to be reached.[5] They also require multiple habitats, one for nesting and another for feeding, which result in strenuous migrations.[5]

Conservation approaches

The most commonly used conservation approach for Magdalena River turtle conservation is "head-starting".[4] However, research efforts have been focused on finding more effective means on conservation, as understanding of the turtles' endangered nature is relatively novel.[11][6] A study that compiled 16 ecological knowledge criteria of Colombian freshwater and tortoise species suggested that the Magdalena River turtle should receive top conservation priority.[12] Studies are applying faster demographic modeling and surveying to better understand the species and establish practical conservation efforts.[5][11] Faster demographic modeling of the species' vital rates is focused on analyzing the contributions of each life stage and intrinsic growth rates (r).[5] Surveying has shown that local Magdalena River turtle consumption habits have changed and knowledge of their ecological role has improved.[11] This suggests that community-based strategies, including distribution of educational material, is proving effective in the conservation effort of Magdalena River turtles.[11]


  1. ^ Páez, V.; Gallego-Garcia, N.; Restrepo, A. (2016). "Podocnemis lewyana". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2016: e.T17823A1528580. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T17823A1528580.en. Retrieved 15 November 2021.
  2. ^ "Appendices | CITES". Retrieved 2022-01-14.
  3. ^ Podocnemis lewyana, Reptile Database
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Magdalena River Turtle | Podocnemis lewyana". EDGE of Existence. Retrieved 2020-04-30.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Paez, VP; Bock, BC; Espinal-Garcia, PA; Rendon-Valencia, BH; Alzate-Estrada, D; Cartagena-Otalvaro, VM; Heppell, SS (2015). "Life History and Demographic Characteristics of the Magdalena River Turtle ( Podocnemis lewyana): Implications for Management". Copeia. 103: 1058–1074.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Páez, Vivian; Restrepo, Adriana; Gallego-Garcia, Natalia (2015-07-01). "IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Magdalena River Turtle". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 2020-04-30.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Alzate-Estrada, Diego A.; Páez, Vivian P.; Cartagena-Otálvaro, Viviana M.; Bock, Brian C. (2020). "Linear Home Range and Seasonal Movements of Podocnemis lewyana in the Magdalena River, Colombia". Copeia. 108 (1): 29–38.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Ceballos, Claudia P.; Romero, Isabel; Gómez-Saldarriaga, Catalina; Miranda, Karla (2014). "REPRODUCTION AND CONSERVATION OF THE MAGDALENA RIVER TURTLE (Podocnemis lewyana) IN THE CLAROCOCORNÁ SUR RIVER, COLOMBIA". Acta Biológica Colombiana. 19 (3): 393–400.
  9. ^ a b c d Paez, VP; Restrepo, A; Vargas-Ramirez, M; Bock, BC (2009). "Podocnemis lewyana Dumeril 1852- Magdalena River Turtle". Chelonian Research Monographs. 5.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Gallego-García, Natalia; Páez, Vivian P. (2016). "Geographic Variation in Sex Determination Patterns in the River Turtle Podocnemis lewyana: Implications for Global Warming". Journal of Herpetology. 50 (2): 256–262.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Vallejo-Betancur, Margarita M.; Páez, Vivian P.; Quan-Young, Lizette I. (2018). "Analysis of People's Perceptions of Turtle Conservation Effectiveness for the Magdalena River Turtle Podocnemis lewyana and the Colombian Slider Trachemys callirostris in Northern Colombia: An Ethnozoological Approach". Tropical Conservation Science. 11: 194008291877906.
  12. ^ Forero-Medina, German; Páez, Vivian P.; Garcés-Restrepo, Mario F.; Carr, John L.; Giraldo, Alan; Vargas-Ramírez, Mario (2016). "Research and Conservation Priorities for Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles of Colombia". Tropical Conservation Science. 9 (4).