Rhinoclemmys punctularia is a large (to 25.4 cm), dark, aquatic turtle with black-spotted forelimbs. Its domed carapace is medially keeled, posteriorly serrated and notched, and usually widest and highest just behind the middle. The surface is smooth to lightly rugose. It is uniformly dark brown or black in adults, but juveniles may have yellow to bronze radiations on each pleural. The plastron is well-developed, upturned anteriorly, and notched posteriorly. Its plastral formula is: abd > pect > fem > an > gul > hum. The plastron is red brown to black with a yellow border and seams. The bridge is yellow with two large dark blotches. The head is small with a slightly projecting snout and a notched upper jaw. It is black with a dorsal pattern ranging from two longitudinal red or yellow stripes that run anteriorly from the nape and touch or pass beyond the orbit, to a broad horseshoelike mark posterior to the orbit. Two light spots may occur on the nape. The eyelids have a light-colored bar, and stripes usually run between the orbit and tympanum and from the snout along the upper jaw to the tympanum. The iris is green to bronze. Forelimbs have large, yellow or red, black-spotted scales, and the hindlimbs are gray laterally and yellow with black spotting medially. The toes are strongly webbed.
Males have concave plastra, long, thick tails, and the vent beyond the carapacial margin; females have flat plastra and shorter tails.
This turtle occurs in the Caribbean drainage of eastern Colombia and northwestern Venezuela, and ranges from eastern Colombia, the Orinoco drainage of Venezuela, and Trinidad Island eastward through the Guianas and northeastern Brazil.
Three subspecies occur in northern South America. Rhinoclemmys punctularia punctularia (Daudin, 1802), the eastern spot-legged turtle, ranges from the Orinoco drainage in extreme eastern Venezuela, and Trinidad Island, southeast through the Guianas, to the Amazon drainage of northeastern Brazil. Its dorsal head pattern consists of an oblique yellow or red stripe on each side running posteriorly from above the orbit to above the tympanum; there are two light blotches on the nape, and a light spot on the snout in front of each orbit. Ernst (1978) considered the form R. lunata (Gray) to represent only a normal pattern variation of R. p. punctularia. R. p. diademata (Mertens, 1954a), the Maracaibo wood turtle, occurs in the Caribbean drainage of eastern Colombia and northwestern Venezuela. Its dorsal head pattern consists of a large, yellow, horseshoe-shaped figure located medially just behind the orbit with the apex pointing anteriorly and the long arms running posteriorly, flaring laterally, and centrally enclosing a dark area; a light blotch occurs on the snout in front of each orbit but no light blotches are on the nape. The Upper Orinoco spot-legged turtle R. p. flammigera Paolillo, 1985 is found in the region of the confluence of the Ventuari and Orinoco rivers in southern Venezuela. Its dorsal head pattern is characterized by numerous red spots arranged in a radial pattern; loreal, middle lateral, posterior lateral, and parietal spots are always present on each side of the head forming a semicircular pattern. A light spot occurs in front of each orbit, and two light blotches are on the nape.
Pritchard (1979) and Pritchard and Trebbau (1984) considered R. p. diademata a separate species based on its allopatric range and lack of intergrades with R. p. punctularia, but Ernst (1978) and Paolillo (1985) thought it merely a subspecies since only the dorsal head pattern differs, and, since some R. p. punctularia have their dorsal stripes united behind the orbits (the lunata pattern), the diademata head pattern could easily be formed from that of punctularia. Determination of the karyotype of diademata would help determine its status.
Rhinoclemmys punctularia inhabits almost all of the freshwater bodies within its range, from ponds, marshes, and coastal swamps to large rivers in Savannah areas to deep forests.
Rhinoclemmys punctularia may reproduce throughout the year, laying several clutches of one to two, elongated, white, brittle-shelled eggs (52-75 x 30-37 mm) under tree roots or vegetation. During courtship, males pursue females, sniffing at their anal vent. The male then moves to the front of the female and proceeds to extend and then withdraw his head on either side of her head; she often bites at his head. When the female is receptive and quiet, the male moves to her rear and copulation follows (Pritchard and Trebbau, 1984). Mating may occur in or out of water.
This turtle is fond of basking, and often roams about on shore. It is omnivorous, accepting a wide variety of plant and animal foods, feeding both in water and on land.
IUCN Red List Status (1996)