Tiny turtle hatchlings boost conservation effort

By Ellen Rykers 7 March 2017
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The arrival of 21 Bellinger River snapping turtles at Taronga Zoo brings hope – along with some very cute photos.

TWENTY-ONE BELLINGER RIVER snapping turtles have hatched in a bumper season for the captive breeding program at Taronga Zoo in Sydney.

The super-cute hatchlings, each about the size of a 20-cent piece and weighing only 4–5g, are key to the survival of this critically endangered species.

“There could be as few as 200 Bellinger River snapping turtles remaining in the wild,” said NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton. “So these hatchlings have a vital role to play in rebuilding this population.”

bellinger river snapping turtle hatchlings

bellinger river snapping turtle hatchlings

Bellinger River snapping turtle hatchlings. (Image: Paul Fahy/Taronga Zoo)

Michael McFadden, supervisor of herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) at Taronga Zoo, said the breeding success was exciting for the recovery team. “We’re extremely happy with this result. These hatchlings will go a long way to securing the future of the species,” he said.

Bellinger River snapping turtles (Myuchelys georgesi) are endemic to the Bellinger River catchment system on the mid-north coast of New South Wales. Once numbering 4000 individuals, a mysterious virus outbreak in 2015 wiped out 90 per cent of the wild population. The virus caused blindness and organ damage and eventually death.

bellinger river snapping turtle hatchlings

bellinger river snapping turtle hatchlings

The tiny turtles are about the size of a 20-cent piece and weigh just 4-5g. (Image: Paul Fahy/Taronga Zoo)

In an effort to save the species, a team from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Western Sydney University and Taronga Zoo rescued 16 survivors to establish an insurance population. After translocation to Sydney, the turtles underwent extensive screening for the pathogen, before moving to their new home at Taronga.

Four of the five mature female turtles produced clutches of eggs, a result that delighted the recovery team. “After relocation from the wild and spending a year in quarantine, we weren’t expecting 80 per cent success rate. It’s great to have success so early,” said Michael.

bellinger river snapping turtle hatchlings

bellinger river snapping turtle hatchlings

The hatchlings were bred in captivity at Taronga Zoo in Sydney. (Images: Michael McFaddden/Taronga Zoo)

The baby turtles are very active, spending most of their time swimming and feeding, according to Michael. “A decent percentage of these hatchlings will be held as part of the insurance population,” he said. “But in a few years, we may undertake reintroductions with some of them.”

However, the recovery team will be careful not to endanger reintroduced turtles. The team only plans to return them to the river once they are sure the risk of disease has reduced.

“Over the next few years, we will continue research into the disease, to find out how it operates and whether it still exists in the river,” said Michael.