Protecting the “bum-breathing turtles” of the Fitzroy River

Fitzroy River Turtle hatchling. Copyright Kymberly Robinson. Fitzroy River Turtle hatchling. Copyright Kymberly Robinson.

Barely bigger than a 20 cent piece, over 3,000 of the Fitzroy River’s delicate “bum-breathing turtle” hatchlings were given a safer passage into adulthood last year.

For 15 weeks from September through to December, Greening Australia’s Field Officer Kymberly Robinson and her volunteers have been braving the river’s resident crocodiles in their tinny to protect the nests of the vulnerable Fitzroy River Turtle (Rheodytes leukops).

Fondly known as bum-breathing turtles due to their unusual method of breathing through gills in their cloaca (a single opening under the tail used for passing of waste and reproducing), these unique turtles are found only in the Fitzroy River Basin. This special adaptation enables the reptiles to remain underwater for an incredible 21 days at a time.

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

Kymberly setting off on the turtle research vessel for the daily nest check. Copyright Fitzroy Basin Association. Kymberly setting off on the turtle research vessel for the daily nest check. Copyright Fitzroy Basin Association.

“It is really important that we get out and protect the nests. Without protection, almost 100% of the eggs would be eaten and destroyed by predators, particularly feral animals like foxes, cats and pigs. Once they reach the water they still have a tough life ahead until they reach maturity, but we are giving them a fighting chance,” says Kymberly.

”Predation is a major issue particularly by foxes which are out on patrol at night. There were at least twenty nests that we didn’t get to in time this season.”

“We will never be able to stop all predation but we can dramatically lower it and by doing that we can increase the number of young entering the water. This has still been our most successful season to date. Being able to monitor the nests six days a week enables us to find and protect nests before they are predated.”

Kymberly recording data at a nesting site. Copyright Kymberly Robinson. Kymberly recording data at a nesting site. Copyright Kymberly Robinson.

The Fitzroy River Turtle nests on steep, sandy banks laying between 16 to 20 tiny, oval-shaped eggs in each nest. Incubation lasts an average of 46 days.

“We monitor potential nesting sites daily for any turtle activity. Turtles leave a lovely mark like a sand angel when they nest. Once we identify a nest, it is GPS marked, data is collected and a mesh is placed over it with great care to cause minimal disturbance to the eggs. The mesh prevents predators from digging up the nests, while still allowing the tiny hatchlings to emerge and make their way to the water.”

“During the 2016 nesting season we have been able to locate and protect 196 nests, this is over double the number of nests protected last year! From these, up to 3,500 hatchlings will have hatched and entered the water. We are hoping this boost in youngsters will make a real difference to the population.”

“I have twenty nests that I am still waiting to hatch so I am going back out in February to collect the mesh and record how many eggs have successfully hatched.”

Crocodiles are an ever present risk which the research team have to be on constant alert for.

“This season there have been frequent sightings of crocodiles which has made things particularly difficult. In some cases we had to stop monitoring certain banks completely and modify our behaviour significantly, such as changing the survey times and the order that we monitored the banks in. Crocs are predators, they look for patterns and once they get to know yours, you become an easy target!”

Greening Australia is seeking additional financial support to enable further research which will enable greater protection of the species.

“There is still so much more we need to learn about the species, such how many hatchlings reach maturity once they enter the water, how many times the females nest each season and where, and what triggers nesting.”

“I have the best job in the world! I feel so lucky that I can be part of this inspiring conservation project and to be doing something to actively help this incredible species.”

The research and practical conservation efforts commenced in 2005, primarily funded by the Fitzroy River Basin Association. Further support from both private donors and government will help to secure the future of this fascinating species.

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