Like all pleurodirous turtles, the chelids withdraw their necks sideways into their shells, differing from cryptodires that fold their necks in the vertical plane. They are all highly aquatic species with webbed feet and the capacity to stay submerged for long periods of time. The snake-necked species (genera Chelus, Chelodina, and Hydromedusa) are largely strike-and-gape hunters or foragers feeding on fish, invertebrates, and gastropods. The short-necked forms are largely herbivorous or molluscivorous, but are also opportunistic, with several species having specialized to eating fruits.
The highly aquatic nature of the group is typified by the presence of cloacal breathing in some species of the genera Elseya and Rheodytes. However, some species, such as the eastern long-neck turtle (Chelodina longicollis) from Australia spend significant periods of time on land and are considered highly terrestrial.
The smaller members of the family include the Macleay river turtle (Emydura macquarii) at around 16 cm, twist-necked turtle (Platemys platycephala) at 18 cm and the western swamp turtle (Pseudemydura umbrina) at 15 cm, whereas the larger species such as the mata mata (Chelus fimbriata) and the white-throated snapping turtle (Elseya albagula) both exceed 45 cm in shell length.