Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mr. Bighead

Years ago, I read about this month’s EUT in the Animal Wonders edition of Zoobooks, the same place I first learned about the Axolotl. The illustration was strange enough to catch my eye and imagination for a good few months—a long time for my flighty young mind1. I recently rediscovered this animal whose complete disproportion struck me at such a young age.

Image from Asian Turtle Conservation Network

The scientific name of the Big-Headed Turtle (Platysternon megacephalum) means “flat-chest big-head,” which is obviously quite apt. Every article that mentions the Big-Headed Turtle states that its gigantic noggin is too large to fit in its narrow shell. So, to protect its head, the turtle uses a two pronged approach. One: the solid bone skull is covered with thick scales. Two: massive, very sharp jaws are coupled with a tendency to bite.

This turtle inhabits shallow, fast moving streams in Southeast Asia, where it enjoys a diet of fish and mussels. Swimming around in the heavy flow of these streams would take too much effort, so the Big-Headed turtle is an excellent climber instead, and ARKive has video to prove it. Its long flexible tail helps to prop it up as it uses its strong claws and beak to climb waterfalls. There are even stories of finding these turtles climbing trees and bushes. What they did when they got up there is anyone’s guess.

The Big-Headed Turtle’s big head seems to evoke one of two responses: it is either grotesquely disproportionate, or adorably baby-like. The second of these responses has led to a large number of them being caught for the pet-trade. While some captive breeding exists, there are not nearly enough Big-Head farms to supply demand for the pet trade. For this reason, it was placed on the IUCN Redlist in 2000, and is now CITES protected as well.

1An incomplete list of animals that have, at one point, been “my favorite animal”: giraffes, raccoons, pangolins, mosquitoes, jellyfish, frilled lizards, chameleons, fireflies, sloths, and many more I can’t think of right now.