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Nest protection breathing new life into Fitzroy River Turtle population

A nest protection project has given over 5,000 tiny Fitzroy River Turtles, measuring the size of a 20-cent piece on hatching, a much-needed hand.

With almost 100% of the vulnerable “bum-breathing turtle” nests typically lost to predation, the project is breathing new life into the river’s turtle population.    

For six days a week between September and December, Greening Australia Field Officer, Kymberly Robinson, and her volunteers brave the river’s many crocodiles to locate and protect turtle nests by covering them with a protective mesh until the eggs are ready to hatch.

“They are a really unique animal to the Rockhampton region as they are found only in the Fitzroy Basin and are bum-breathers – they breathe through gills in an area called the cloaca. This enables them to stay underwater for up to 21 days at a time,” says Kymberly.

Concerns about the future of the threatened reptile was raised after surveys indicated that the population is aging due to the low survival rate of youngsters.

“Last season we protected 93 individual turtle nests, from which we believe 1,661 healthy hatchlings emerged and entered the water. Unfortunately, we did lose a few nests but 87 hatched successfully which is significant.”

The turtles nest on steep, sandy banks laying between 16 to 20 tiny, oval-shaped eggs in a chamber beneath the sand which Kymberly says leaves behind ‘a lovely mark like a sand angel’.

“Without protection, almost all the Fitzroy River Turtle’s nests are typically lost to predators, particularly feral animals like foxes, cats and pigs. By protecting the nests, we significantly increase the number of young entering the water.”

The mesh prevents predators from digging up the nests, while still allowing the tiny hatchlings to emerge. Once in the water the hatchlings face a tough life until maturity, with only an estimated 1 out of every 100 surviving.

“There is lots more that we could be doing to help the turtles, such as improving our knowledge through research, restoring habitat and feral predator trapping.”

Kymberly says that the 12km stretch of the river they monitor, represents only a tiny portion of the key habitat.

“It would be really great to be able to expand the area and scope of our work. We don’t know a lot about these little turtles and it would be good to learn what happens to them once they enter the water and what impact our work is having.

“These unique turtles are found in only this one river on Earth, so it is really important that we give them a fighting chance. It is a real privilege to be involved in helping to save this pretty awesome little species.”

This project is supported by Fitzroy Basin Association Inc. with funding made available through the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme.