Known in southeastern Peru by its indigenous name, taricaya, the yellow-spotted side-necked turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) has found refuge in Tambopata National Reserve after decades of hunting practices and habitat loss across South America, as well as capture for the international pet trade, which have left it classified as a vulnerable species by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List, across large parts of the Amazon rainforest. The natural habitat of this freshwater, semi-aquatic and partly terrestrial turtle traditionally extended across most of tropical South America, from Venezuela, French Guiana and Guyana, to Suriname, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. However, across much of its range, populations of yellow-spotted side-necked turtles have declined, and its current status as “vulnerable” is just one category below “endangered”. In addition to habitat loss and fragmentation, the major threats to this turtle species in the past have been the intensive harvesting of its eggs and the hunting of mature turtles for their meat.
Yellow-spotted side-necked turtles get their name from the yellow markings seen on the heads of juveniles, although these spots tend to fade with age. They are known as “side-necked” turtles because instead of retracting their head, in common with other species of turtle and tortoise, they bend their neck to one side in order to tuck their head under the rim of the shell for protection. Yellow-spotted side-necked turtles are among the largest turtles found in South America. They can grow up to 45 centimeters (17 inches) in length and weigh up to 8 kilograms (17 pounds). Females tend to be considerably larger than males.
It is thanks to protected natural areas such as Tambopata National Reserve that the yellow-spotted side-necked turtle has managed to recover its numbers within small pockets of the Amazon basin where hunting, fishing and other extractive activities are banned. Under the protection of initiatives like the National Reserve and our own Tambopata Ecolodge Private Conservation Area, it is now quite common to see yellow-spotted side-necked turtles on the Tambopata River, as well as local tributaries and lakes. Visitors traveling by boat in the Tambopata area should look out for the black or brown oval carapaces of these turtles on logs emerging from the water, particularly on warm, cloudless days, when they sun themselves at spots where they can easily slip into the water if they sense danger.
One way to spot small groups of yellow-spotted side-necked turtles along riverbanks is to look out for clouds of butterflies. One of the most delightful –and most photogenic- experiences enjoyed by visitors along the banks of the Tambopata River is the sight of yellow-spotted side-necked turtles surrounded by butterflies, as they swarm around the turtles’ faces, attracted by the sodium contained in the salt they are able to obtain from the reptiles’ tear ducts. Naturalists have observed other insects engaging in this innovative way of obtaining salt, including bees.