Mexican wood turtle, Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima, carapace.
Photograph by Betsy McCormick
The genus Rhinoclemmys is composed of eight species and numerous subspecies. Rhinoclemmys species
include R. annulata, R. areolata, R. funerea, R. melanosterna, R. nasuta, R.
pulcherrima, R. punctularia, and R. rubida. The only New World members of the subfamily Batagurinae,
the members of the Rhinoclemmys genus are native to tropical and subtropical Central and South America.
The Mexican wood turtle, Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima, is a very attractive semiterrestrial species. I have had
four other species of Rhinoclemmys over the years and have found R. pulcherrima to be by far the easiest
and most interesting to maintain. I have yet to see a shy or withdrawn member of this species. They all seem curious
and eager to accept the situation at hand. They spend time soaking but definitely prefer being out of water, and they
always eat on land.
The carapace of the Mexican wood turtle is light brown with a ridge down the middle and moderate sculpturing on the
scutes. The plastron is yellowish with red patterning visible on the marginal scutes. The body parts are yellowish
with red mixed in a rather lacy pattern. There are red lines on the head and the eyes have a blue line on either side
of the pupil. The shell is somewhat elongated. Adult turtles measure 6-8 in (15.2-20.3 cm) in carapace length, with
the females being larger than the males.
My experience with the R. pulcherrima pulcherrima began in 1971 when Taco entered my life. She was a
wonderful creature - alert, active, and very responsive to my care. This is the behavior I have found in all the
animals of this species that I have known over the years. Taco was an enthusiastic eater; fruit, greens and soaked cat
chow were all devoured, with the latter being her favorite. Snails were enjoyed when available, and I'm sure she ate
other bugs and worms as she found them.
Mexican wood turtle, Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima, plastron.
Photograph by Betsy McCormick
I've found that my creatures will take live food if it's right in front of them, but they can't be bothered if it
moves too fast - then they just enjoy watching it move! It's much easier to have their meal served on a platter, and
they seem secure in the knowledge that starvation will not be an option for them.
It wasn't long before Tortilla, Enchilada and Pedro joined Taco. She seemed to welcome the company. Eventually I
felt Pedro needed assistance with his three ladies, so I added José. All were compatible and well-adjusted. They
shared an 8 x 24 ft (2.4 x 7.3 m) pen with box turtles. There is a shallow pond, various water dishes, and lots of
shady and sunny areas. The three houses in the enclosure are elevated on cement blocks and accessed by carpeted ramps.
The "caves" under the houses created by the cement blocks are favored hideouts. There are sandy SuperSoil™ areas; the
pulcherrima love to throw the soil and sand up on their backs using their front legs in flipper fashion.
Because of their "south of the border" origin, I felt they needed to be in their houses at night, even though our
Southern California nights are quite mild. For years, I was consistent with the routine of "putting them to bed" at
night. It was disappointing to me that the group didn't seem to get the message of going inside their houses in the
evening, as so many other chelonians do. I would find the R. pulcherrima sitting outside in 40°F (4.4°C)
temperatures. I feel that this led to the demise of most of the group. Finally I concluded that heat must be the
problem. Since they've been given heated housing for winter, the three remaining turtles from the 1970's group have
done well. They now live in a pen that has a greenhouse-type setup with heated houses.
For several years - 1973 to 1980 - I hatched offspring from the adult R. pulcherrima. Unfortunately, in
those days I was overloaded with rearing human children, and my turtle records suffered. I'm uncertain as to the
number I hatched. I did record that Taco laid two eggs in June of 1972 and three the following September. The eggs
averaged 2 x 1.12 inches (51 x 28 mm) in size. None of these eggs hatched, but the following year at least one egg did
hatch. The three survivors of that original group of R. pulcherrima are all males, and they are all doing well
almost 20 years later. They are 6 - 7 inches (15.2 - 17.8 cm) long and 5 - 5.5 inches (12.7 - 14 cm) wide.
They have remained "Lonesome Joes" all these years in spite of my efforts to find them female companions. Recently
I was able to obtain four lovely females. All have adjusted extremely well. They did so from their first day here, and
it was a challenge to complete the necessary isolation period. With the level of activity since the boys met the
girls, I have high hopes of repeating my successful breeding experience of twenty years ago. Since all three males are
ones I hatched, it would be very exciting to have another generation!
Originally published in the Tortuga Gazette 34(1): 1-2, January 1998