Species Spotlight Vol. 15

by Jordan Gray 

Yellow (Golden)-headed Box Turtle (Cuora aurocapitata)

Countries of Origin: China (Anhui Province)

IUCN Status: Critically Endangered

Estimated surviving population:  Considered functionally extinct

Habitat: Clear, fast-flowing, hillside streams

Biology and Habits: Little has been documented regarding the wild ecology of the Yellow-headed Box Turtle. A highly aquatic species, this turtle rarely leaves the confines of the streams in which they reside. Their wild diet consists of freshwater shrimp, insects and their aquatic larvae, and small fishes. The Anhui Province, to which they are endemic, is temperate in climate; the turtles may experience below freezing temperatures in the winter, and above 27¬∞ C (80¬∞ F) in the summer.


  • C. a. aurocapitata males 10 - 12.5 cm (4 - 5 in); females 13 - 16 cm (5 - 6 in)
  • C. a. dabieshani males 11 - 13.5 cm (4 - 5 in); females 14 - 19.5 cm (5.5 - 8 in)


  • The Yellow-headed Box Turtle was first described by science in 1988 from specimens collected for Chinese markets. The first wild specimen would not be found by scientists until 16 years later, in 2004.
  • In 2017, scientists split the species into two separate subspecies, whose geographic ranges are divided by the Yangtze River. The Western Yellow-headed Box Turtle (C.a.dabieshani) lives in the Dabie Mountains of southwestern Anhui Province, while the Eastern Yellow-headed Box Turtle (C.a.aurocapitata) lives in the Huangshan Mountains of southern Anhui Province.
  • The Western subspecies is overall a larger turtle than its eastern counterpart.
  • The Yellow-headed Box Turtle was never a common species, and is highly endemic‚Äîbeing found in only three river systems of the picturesque Dabie and Huangshan Mountains.
  • The range of the Yellow-headed Box Turtle is precariously close (approximately 322 km (200 mi)) to the largest city in the world: Shanghai

Greatest Threats: The Yellow-headed Box Turtle has been overexploited by harvesting for food and for the pet trade. After the species' description in 1988, the turtle became highly sought after by commercial collectors. Within ten years, their populations had collapsed. This collapse on account of collection was compounded by other human interferences with the environment such as hydroelectric damming and water pollution. Now, more Yellow-headed Box Turtles exist in captivity than remain in the wild. Too attractive for its own good, this species is considered to be one of the top 25 most endangered species of tortoise and freshwater turtle. See the full report here!

How you can help: The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) maintains an assurance colony of adult Yellow-headed Box Turtles and their offspring at our Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina. With the species all but gone from the wild, captive breeding and the maintenance of genetic lineages is the only hope for their biological survival. You can help us preserve this stunning species by DONATING TODAY!

Photo credit: Cris Hagen