European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis)

European pond turtle, European pond terrapin (Emys orbicularis)

An inconspicuous shelled reptile, which stands out with its unique habits, as it hibernates in the coldest and hottest months. Due to its small size and an interesting appearance, it becomes a hunting target, which has led to a considerable population reduction recently. The only turtle living naturally in Poland.


  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Testudines
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Subfamily: Emydinae
  • Genus: Emys
  • Species: Emys orbicularis
European pond turtle
European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis).


Today there are 14 European pond turtle subspecies, which are distinguished by their size, coloration and body patterns, yet still many experts undermine such a classification.

  • Central Turkey pond turtle(Emys orbicularis luteofusca)
  • Colchis pond turtle(Emys orbicularis colchica)
  • Common European pond turtle(Emys orbicularis orbicularis)
  • Corsican pond turtle(Emys orbicularis lanzai)
  • Eastern pond turtle(Emys orbicularis persica)
  • Eiselt’s pond turtle(Emys orbicularis eiselti)
  • Italian pond turtle(Emys orbicularis galloitalica)
  • Kura Valley pond turtle(Emys orbicularis iberica)
  • North African pond turtle(Emys orbicularis occidentalis)
  • Obst’s pond turtle(Emys orbicularis fritzjuergenobstii)
  • Sardinian pond turtle(Emys orbicularis capolongoi)
  • Spanish pond turtle(Emys orbicularis hispanica)
  • Suedkaspi pond turtle(Emys orbicularis orientalis)
  • Western Turkey pond turtle(Emys orbicularis hellenica)
European pond turtle
European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis).


It inhabits the south and central Europe, North Africa and West Asia, but in the Atlantic (period of the Holocene, from 7.5 to 5 thousand years ago), its range was much wider, as it included the northern parts of Europe up to southern Sweden. It also lives in the wild in Poland. Once common, now it occurs mainly in landscape parks and nature reserves.

Name and habitat

Its name suggests its preferred habitats, including wetlands, forests, mountain areas (the best in terms of food abundance) and fresh water reservoirs: ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and man-made ducts.

European pond turtle has favored water reservoirs with soft, sandy or muddy bottom with lush greenery, yet with few predators. It is important that there are sandy areas close, as the turtle`s eggs are laid there, yet still baby turtles prefer shallow waters (max. 50 m [164 ft] deep).

A mainly aquatic species, it crawls onto the land to bask in the sun and lay eggs, but experts consider it to be a mixed-habitat species.

European pond turtle
European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis).



European pond turtle is one of several fresh water turtle species living in Europe. Although its appearance varies depending on the inhabited areas, it is usually easily distinguished by its bright yellow or golden spots on its carapace and skin (as well for immature as adult turtles).

Due to its spectacular look, it has become a desired pet. Some populations are completely black with only few spots nonetheless.

Northern and southern turtles

Generally, the reptiles living in northern areas seem larger and darker than their southern relatives. Interestingly, sexual dimorphism involves the color of the iris and is also dependent of the region: males may have red, brown-yellow or yellow to white eyes, while females usually have a yellow iris, rarely white.

The carapace shape and coloration alters with age: baby turtles have rounded shells, the scutes are rough, uniformly dark brown all over the dorsal part of the shell, being black on the plastron (ventral part). The yellow spots are located along the shell`s edge. Dorsal scutes may be striped. The head, legs and tail are dark with yellow or brownish speckles. Its head is covered with smooth skin, limbs being membrane-like. Carapace is 12-38 cm (5-15 in) long. The plastron is connected with the rest of the body quite loosely, with a set of ligaments that act like hinges.

European pond turtle
European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis).

Diet and hunting techniques


The European pond turtle is mostly carnivorous, most specimens are regular predators, yet their menu is changeable – smaller turtles hunt for small aquatic animals, favoring a larger prey when they get older. It eats bugs, insects, frogs and fish: all typically found in water reservoirs.


The reptile strikes biting the victim`s head sides, shredding it to pieces afterwards with its sharp claws located on the tips of front limbs. In the natural habitat, this predator may catch prey only when it moves.

In captivity it often switches to eating fruit and vegetables.

European pond turtle
European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis).

Hibernation and aestivation

Diversified climate conditions resulting from a wide range force these animals to adapt to them, which is why the northern populations spend winter months in hibernation and go into aestivation in summer in the hottest habitats.

Methods of defense against predators

Distinctive ‘hinges’ which carry the plastron allows the turtle to hide in the shell and shut the holes left for limbs, head and tail, which is an effective defense technique.

Eggs and baby turtles are facing largest threats, they often become prey for herons, raccoons, bears, Lampropeltis genus snakes, Ocypode genus crabs, hermit crabs, dogs, seagulls, alligators, crocodiles, foxes, rats, cats and cormorants.

Babies are often hunted by predatory fish as well as coyotes, carnivorous raptors and humans.

European pond turtle
European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis).

Life style

During the day, the turtle basks in the sun, laying still on warm rocks. In the water, only its nose and eyes can be seen above the water surface, sometimes it hides among the floating vegetation. During hibernation, it is hidden in the mud, from which it crawls out only in late spring.


Observation has shown that there is a hierarchy and will to dominate among males, especially in the mating season – they may act territorial during hunts. The resulting behaviors involve: stretching its neck, jerking and biting its opponents and other similar actions. Submissive behaviors have also been observed.

European pond turtle
European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis).

Calm and docile in captivity

In captivity they become calm; they can be easily tamed, although in its natural habitat they are very shy and cautious towards humans.


Adult turtles are bound into couples and live in small groups. Their actions depend on season of the year and environmental conditions e.g. ambient temperature fall diminishes appetite.

Local migrations

Furthermore, these animals migrate locally and hunt actively. They may remain underwater for many hours without the necessity of drawing a breath.

Vocalizations (sounds)

In the mating season, European pond turtles emit short, shrill sounds. Vocalizations may also sound like whistling, tweeting and even groaning when in danger. Head movements are an important mean of communication, auditory stimuli being vital part of mating process.

European pond turtle
Young european pond turtle (Emys orbicularis).


European pond turtles get together in pairs, which is followed by courtship and copulation. The sexual intercourse takes place on sandy areas or under leaves. Most females and males live together in harmony, yet aggressive behaviors towards own species also happen.

After reaching sexual maturity around 5-6 years of age the females may lay eggs. One hatch normally consists of 8-10 white, elongated eggs with hard shells, about 15-25 mm (0.6-1 in) long.


A pregnant female seeks a dry ground without any vegetation. When the perfect spot is located, it digs a hole about 5 cm (2 in) deep with its tail. After laying eggs in it the female covers the nest with soil, pressing the dirt firmly – then it walks away.

European pond turtle
European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis).


Incubation lasts for 90-100 days, after which baby turtles are fully developed, yet spend the winter in hibernation until they hatch the next spring. European pond turtles may carry out several hatches a year.

Temperature and gender

The gender of baby turtles is determined by the incubation ambient temperature – below 25 degrees Celsius fetuses form males, while above 30 degrees – females.

Males become sexually mature earlier than females, but they are also smaller. Both features are an adaptive element resulting from numerous factors over a given region, including ecological factors, food abundance, genetic issues and habitats` quality. A change in diet and long-term activeness influence the growth pace – it is slowed down gradually, which prolongs the maturing process.

European pond turtle
European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis).

Protected species

The European pond turtle is a  very rare species and is subject to strict specific protection. It has been enlisted in the Polish Red Book of Animals with the EN conservation status, which is granted to high-risk species, endangered with extinction. As a whole, the species is ranked nt (near threatened lower risk status).

European pond turtle
European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis).

Detailed characteristic / size

European pond turtle, European pond terrapin (Emys orbicularis)

  • Carapace length: 12-38 cm (5-15 in), still, rarely exceeds 20 cm (8 in)
  • Weight: about 1 kg (2 lb)
  • Lifespan: 40-60 years. There are extremely rare cases of turtles living for even over 100 years.

European pond turtle – interesting facts

  • Despite being mainly an aquatic animal, it may crawl 1,000-4,000 m (0.6-2.5 mi) to the inland.
  • Males become sexually mature earlier than females and are usually smaller than female turtles, although the growth ratio is almost the same for both genders.
  • European pond turtles are often victims of hunting for meat and body parts used by tribal medicine. Additionally many people buy live turtles (not always legally) treating them as pets. As a result, the species has been granted an endangered conservation status.
European pond turtle
European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis).


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