The Central American river turtle (Dermatemys mawii), also known locally as the hicatee or tortuga blanca (white turtle) is the only living species in the family. Its closest relatives are only known from fossils with some 19 genera described from a worldwide distribution from the Jurassic and Cretaceous.
The Central American river turtle is the sole surviving species of an historically widespread family of turtles. However, the entire lineage is now restricted to parts of Belize, southern Mexico and Guatemala.
This fascinating river turtle diverged from all other living turtles around 80 million years ago. To put this in perspective, this species sits alone on the tip of a branch of the tree of life stretching back to the time of the dinosaurs.
Dermatemys is highly aquatic and feeds only on plant matter. Its large size and locally popular meat means this species is a sought after and occasionally profitable resource for local people and has in many cases been overexploited across its range and completely lost from some watersheds.
Dermatemys is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List on the basis of widespread, dramatic and ongoing population declines and in some parts of its range is protected by various forms of legislation. Captive breeding efforts are underway, and the implementation of effective in situ conservation measures, patricularly prohibition of illegal hunting and community engagement and awareness, is critical for their survival.