Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle: Habitat, Characteristics and Conservation

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle is considered medicinal, because its shell has a gelatinous cartilage which may be able to cure weakness, vertigo, insomnia and other ailments.
Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle: Habitat, Characteristics and Conservation
Cesar Paul Gonzalez Gonzalez

Written and verified by the biologist Cesar Paul Gonzalez Gonzalez.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

Most turtles use their shells as a means of defense, as they’re quite hard structures that resist mechanical stress. However, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle breaks with this tradition, as it has a soft shell, which does little to protect it. In addition, it’s also recognized for being one of the largest species in freshwater.

Scientists know it as Rafetus swinhoei. It’s one of the critically endangered vertebrates and requires urgent help – read on to learn its history.

Yangtze giant softshell turtle habitat

Naturally, their habitat was restricted to the Yangtzé and Red rivers, between China and Vietnam. However, it’s believed that it could also live in some swamps in the area, which hasn’t yet been confirmed. An article published in the journal Chelonian Conservation and Biology surveyed locals about the presence of the species, and they confirmed that it has been missing for years from many places.

Thanks to this same research, it was possible to identify that the turtle inhabited the sections of rivers with little current and a lot of mud. This is due to the fact that sandbanks form in these areas, which are necessary for the oviposition of this species.

Physical characteristics

This reptile can measure more than a meter (3.3 feet) in length and its weight is around 100 kilograms (220 pounds) or more. Its characteristic soft shell reaches more than 50 centimeters (1.65 feet) in length and has a touch similar to that of its skin. Although it may not seem like it, experts believe that in the wild this species could have reached a larger size, so it could even exceed the size of the alligator turtle.

Its body has a dark-brown color, with slight yellow tones on the head, and extremities that can become completely dark. Due to their physical shape, part of their limbs are exposed, so their coloration can also be influenced by the growth of microalgae on them.

Its head has a peculiar shape as this chelonian has an elongated nose, flattened at the tip, very similar to that of a pig. The neck retracts well, and it can lengthened or contract considerably. In addition, it has webbed feet, which are specific adaptations to enable them to live in water.

Behavior of the Yangtze giant softshell turtle

The species is quite shy, as it spends most of its time underwater. It uses its neck and nose to breathe without having to get out of the water. In addition, due to its coloration, it can go unnoticed in the muddy bottoms of the river.

How does it feed?

Soft turtle species are mostly carnivorous, so they can feed on fish, snails, crabs, and other aquatic invertebrates. In fact, they’re an important part of the ecosystem, since, thanks to them, the populations of small vertebrates and invertebrates are regulated.

Reproduction of the Yangtze giant softshell turtle

Turtles are oviparous reptiles with great longevity. They usually reach their sexual maturity between 10 and 15 years of age and, at this point, they can produce up to 100 eggs annually. Their reproductive strategy favors the survival of the species, especially considering that these turtles can live for more than 100 years.

The eggs that are produced are deposited on sandbanks, places where they are carefully covered by the female. After about 80 days, the eggs hatch, releasing the young. However, it is precisely at this time when turtles are most susceptible to predators and most will not be able to touch the water for the first time.

The key to the success of the species lies in living long and laying a large number of eggs. Although they shouldn’t have any problems in theory, in practice, the fact that these turtles are used for human food affects their populations greatly.

Conservation status of the Yangtze giant softshell turtle

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, this reptile is classified as a Critically Endangered (CE) species. Only 3 specimens are known to exist, two in the wild and one in the Suzhou Zoo in China.

Efforts for its conservation

In 2019, the Suzhou Zoo performed an artificial insemination process on a turtle for the second time. This decision was made as a result of the failure to pair two Yangtze giant softshell turtles, as the female only laid infertile eggs. After the procedure, this female passed away, leaving her entire species in danger, as she was the last in captivity.

Fortunately, in late 2020 a new female was found in Dong Mo Lake, China. With this, we have a new opportunity to make it reproduce naturally. This situation keeps hopes alive and manages to ensure the existence of at least one male and one female who can save their species.

Threats of the Yangtze giant softshell turtle

Like many softshell turtles, this reptile is affected by human activity due to 3 main causes:

  • Illegal hunting: Its meat and eggs are part of the culinary history of natives in Asia. In addition, medicinal properties are attributed to its shell.
  • Destruction of its habitat: Pollution and disturbance of water conditions affect the balance of the turtle’s habitat.
  • The construction of dams: The construction is carried out by hydroelectric plants and their waters can change the channels and other aspects of this reptile’s habitat, and can managing to displace it.

It may seem impossible, but there’s still hope for this turtle. As there are only three specimens left, the only thing we can do is to wait to see if the efforts to protect them bear fruit. This task isn’t an easy one, and any decision can give unexpected results, but rest assured that scientists only have the animal’s benefit in mind when taking them.

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All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Wang, J., & Shi, H. (2011). The change of historical distribution of Rafetus swinhoei. Acta Zootaxonomica Sinica/Dongwu Fenlei Xuebao36(4), 919-924.
  • Jian, W., Hai-Tao, S., Cheng, W., & Lian-Xian, H. (2013). Habitat selection and conservation suggestions for the Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) in the Upper Red River, China. Chelonian Conservation and Biology12(1), 177-184.
  • Schaffer, R. (2009). Rafetus swinhoei, Lonesome George, and The Loneliest Animals. Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, (14), 10.
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  • Le Duc, O., Van, T. P., Leprince, B., Bordes, C., Tuan, A. N., Benansio, J. S., … & Luiselli, L. (2020). Fishers, dams, and the potential survival of the world’s rarest turtle, Rafetus swinhoei, in two river basins in northern Vietnam. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems30(6), 1074-1087.
  • Le, M., Duong, H. T., Dinh, L. D., Nguyen, T. Q., Pritchard, P. C., & McCormack, T. (2014). A phylogeny of softshell turtles (Testudines: Trionychidae) with reference to the taxonomic status of the critically endangered, giant softshell turtle, Rafetus swinhoei. Organisms Diversity & Evolution14(3), 279-293.
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