A quite unexpected find along a dirt road far from the nearest water source: a Pelomedusa subrufa. I am not being highfalutin here, but sticking to the name that is common to the variation of common names I have come across, such as: Helmeted Turtle, Marsh Terrapin, Side-necked Terrapin, and Waterskilpad. We nearly didn’t see it as it blended so well with the gravel on the road and the shadows as it sought shelter under a bush.

Seven hours later another one crossed a different road in front of us.

According to the reference below, although these freshwater turtles/terrapins live in water they make terrestrial excursions during the rainy season. The rainy season? Perhaps these two were out and about because this particular area of the Karoo had experienced a heavy downfall of rain the day before our arrival. There were still a few muddy puddles here and there in the veld – none that would remain for more than a day or two.

What is particular noticeable about this terrapin is that its flattened shell is oval to circular and that the head and neck withdraw side-ways into the shell. The carapace and plastron are brown to black in colour – both of these terrapins are also covered in dust and what could be the remains of mud. They are occur through most of South Africa except in the western regions.

This is a useful identification guide:


  1. That wonderful 2nd photograph. . . For a moment I thought, could life have started in the earth instead of in water. He might be mistaken for a flat rock or a little mound of dust.


  2. Well-camouflaged, it’s a wonder you saw them. I noticed the second seemed to have had an obstruction (perhaps a plastic ring) that constricted its shell growth. Plastic pollution is esp. hard on turtles.


    • You made me look at that photograph again and have left me wondering whether you are right or if the deformity was caused by damage to the carapace when the terrapin was much younger. I base that on the carapace of the angulate tortoise in our garden that was bitten when it was much smaller and its carapace has not developed as well on that side as on the other.


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