National Geographic Photo Ark Spotlight: The Vulnerable Yellow-spotted Amazon River Turtle

Native to rivers and lakes in the Amazon and Orinoco river systems in South America, the yellow-spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild, and is therefore assessed as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists the species as Endangered wherever found, in terms of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

International trade in this turtle, which is popular in the pet trade, is strictly regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The reptile is also known as trajaca, and as the yellow-headed sideneck turtle because it tucks its head horizontally into its shell, rather than withdrawing vertically. Only the males and juvenile females have the yellow markings on their heads.

Some curiosities about its reproduction include that the male courts the female by nipping at her feet and tail. She lays her eggs two weeks after mating and the sex of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature at which they incubate in riverbank sand, with warmer temperatures producing females. Climate change is considered to be a threat to the turtle as globally warmer temperatures could yield fewer male hatchlings. A rapid rise of four degrees Celsius could possibly eliminate males altogether, according to the Encyclopedia of Life.

The turtles are often seen basking on rocks or trees in and along rivers. They are hunted by indigenous people for food.

A captive, self-sustaining population of this turtle lives in the U.S., in zoos and in the pet trade.

Photo Ark

The interaction between animals and their environments is the engine that keeps the planet healthy for all of us. But for many species, time is running out. When you remove one, it affects us all.

The National Geographic Photo Ark is a multiyear effort to raise awareness of and solutions to some of the most pressing issues affecting wildlife and their habitats. The Photo Ark’s three-pronged approach harnesses the power of National Geographic photography and the bold ideas of our explorers. Led by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, the project aims to document every species living in the world’s zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, inspire action through education, and help save wildlife by supporting on-the-ground conservation efforts.

See what we can #SaveTogether before it’s too late.

Learn more about Photo Ark, help us save wildlife.




Encyclopedia of Life: Podocnemis unifilis
The Reptile Database: Podocnemis unifilis
Ingenta Connect: Nest predation of the yellow-spotted Amazon River turtle by the fire ant
The Ecological Society of America: The bee and the turtle: a fable from Yasuní National Park
IUCN Red List:  Podocnemis unifilis
Smithsonian National Zoo: Yellow-spotted Amazon River Turtle

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn