Asian brown tortoise, Manouria emys

Photograph by Fred Caporaso


This is the largest Asian tortoise and may reach a straight-line shell length exceeding 18 inches. The front of the forelimbs are covered with large, heavy, overlapping scales. Additionally, there is a grouping of very large tubercular scales on each thigh. The thigh scales are so pronounced that this species is sometimes referred to as the "six-legged" or "six-footed" tortoise. Because of certain characteristics such as a broad, flattened shell, wide nuchal scute, paired supracaudal scutes, and a preference for cool, moist habitats, the Asian brown tortoise is believed by Walter Auffenberg of the Florida State Museum, to be one of the most primitive species of tortoise.


Manouria emys emys, commonly called the Asian brown tortoise, is distributed from Assam and India, through Malaysia to Sumatra and Borneo. Manouria emys phayrei, usually referred to as the Burmese forest tortoise or Burmese mountain tortoise, occurs in Burma and western Thailand.

Subspecies Characteristics

Manouria emys emysManouria emys phayrei
• shell usually light to dark brown in color• shell is usually charcoal or black in color
• pectoral scutes extend only halfway to midline of plastron• pectoral scutes continue to midline of plastron
• moderate flaring of marginal scutes• little or no flaring of marginal scutes
• shallow concavity of costal scutes• concavity of costal scutes absent or greatly reduced

Distribution and Habitat

Much of the range of this chelonian is in upland parts of Asia in temperate, moist forest habitats that come under the influence of monsoon rains. During the warmer parts of the day these tortoises prefer to soak in pools or to remain in the shade, out of the sun's rays. During the 20th century these tortoises have been recorded from India, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Their status varies from country to country. Because of their heavy exploitation by humans, they are now a species of special concern. One bright note, as far as conservation, is that in parts of Malaysia they may occasionally be found in turtle temples.

Natural History

Little is known about the day-to-day life of this species. In the wild these large tortoises are chiefly herbivorous. Much of the recent natural history information has been compiled by Ed Moll of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group.

Status in Captivity

At various times in the exotic pet trade in the U.S. one or the other subspecies of Manouria emys was more readily available to zoos and hobbyists. In 1979 Wirot, in his book Turtles of Thailand, referred to Manouria emys phayrei as Geochelone nutapundi, as he was apparently unaware of Blyth's earlier description and classification of this taxa. Since Manouria (Geochelone) emys phayrei was the more commonly imported of the two during the 1970's and 1980's, many authors writing about captive individuals in the late 1970's and early 1980's, referred to these animals as Geochelone nutapundi or "nutapundi" phase.