Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Florida
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Bishop, N., Polisar, J., Eliazar, P.J., Carthy, R.R., & Bjorndal, K.A. 2022. Diet of Dermatemys mawii, an aquatic turtle that relies heavily on terrestrial vegetation. Chelonian Conservation and Biology. 21 (1): 37–45.


Dermatemys mawii is a critically endangered freshwater turtle endemic to Central America. In the wild, these turtles are thought to be wholly herbivorous as adults and feed on a variety of vegetation; however, no studies have quantitatively assessed potential dietary differences based on biotic and abiotic factors. The purpose of our study was to describe and quantify the wild diet of D. mawii and assess differences based on habitat, maturity, and sex. We evaluated the stomach contents of 66 turtles legally harvested by local hunters for personal consumption throughout the country of Belize. Percent volume (by displacement) and percent frequency of each stomach item were used to calculate an index of relative importance (IRI). One algal and six plant families contributed to an overall diet composition consisting of leaves, flowers, stems, seedpods, seeds, and fruit. Rocks and invertebrates were also consumed, although we believe these to be incidental consumption. The leaves of the riparian tree Inga edulis were present in 73.1% of turtle stomachs and accounted for almost half of the total volume of all stomach contents combined. We used Spearman rank correlation coefficients to test the null hypothesis that there was no correlation in the rankings of stomach items (i.e. there were differences) when comparing turtles by habitat, age, and sex. There were significant differences in the ranking of food items between river and lagoon habitats, with lagoon turtles relying heavily upon the algae Nitella sp.; however, the stomach contents from both habitats were equally diverse (Hrivers = 1.68, Hlagoons = 1.64). There were no differences in IRIs between adults and juveniles or between males and females. Our results emphasize the importance of habitat in D. mawii diet selection and the importance of leaves from riparian plants species that are shed into their aquatic habitats.