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Turtoises/Tortles 'Doing it the Toughest' of All Australian Turtle Species

Discussion in 'General Turtle Care Discussion' started by Craig, Jun 4, 2012.

  1. Craig

    Craig Founding Member/Administrator/Public Officer
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    Hi everyone,

    I just arrived home from visiting the Perth Zoo Western Swamp Turtle breed and release facility as well as 2 out of the 3 remaining habitats left for this tough little battler. Western Swamp Turtle numbers fell to less than 29 known individuals in the wild and it was classified as Australia's most endangered reptile. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that there may still be small undiscovered wild populations remaining elsewhere. They live a terrestrial lifestyle for approximately 2/3 of each year in hot, dry conditions. They aestivate (bury under hard clay in tunnels and burrows) and remain underground from December to escape the heat and dry conditions, and emerge in May, June or July, depending on when the start of the rainy season arrives. After they emerge from their burrows they partially bury themselves under leaf litter amongst dense scrub and dried grasses waiting for enough rainfall to fill their ponds/swampland. The remaining few months of the year, if they are lucky enough to survive the dry season and scrub fires, they enjoy the ephemeral wetlands where they must eat and grow extremely fast as well as mate and lay eggs.

    I believe that they should be called Turtoises or Tortles, as they live such a sedentary life underground then find their way to the surface and wait for the rains to arrive, partially buried in leaf litter and clay/sand under dried grass and scrub as tortoises would, yet they have webbed feet like freshwater turtles. They can only eat and mate when submerged in water, similar to other freshwater turtles.

    They also are the only species of turtle in Australia to excavate nests and burrows using their forelimbs as burrowing tortoises do. They still must eat and mate in water as freshwater turtles would, hence the 'Turtoises' / 'Tortles' name.

    If I had have visited the swamps during the rainy season only, I would not have fully understood the extremely harsh conditions they are subjected to each year. With climatic change, Perth's rainfall appears to be decreasing, as well as arriving later each year, making it much harder for the adults and juveniles to survive. This also decimates that season's hatchlings as they emerge in May-June, expecting the swamps to be full of water with live invertebrates to feed on. Most Western swamp turtles feed exclusively on invertebrates, tadpoles and worms with some individuals also eating small fish, if they are available.

    Hatchlings weigh approximately 4 grams when they hatch and MUST weigh at least 20 grams by the time they burrow underground and enter aestivation. If they don't, they will perish.
    Apart from this major challenge, they must also contend with Bandicoots destroying their nests to consume their eggs (only 3-5 each season), Australian ravens attacking and killing the adults, shortage of food, foxes, fires as well as migratory wetland birds consuming the newly emerged hatchlings in the shallow clay ponds, that they prefer to inhabit.

    I arrived at Perth Zoo on Friday the 1st of June, and met my good friend Dr Gerald Kuchling, who is an Internationally recognised freshwater turtle expert, who gave me a tour of the Western swamp turtle exhibit and breeding facility.

    The Western swamp turtle exhibit in the wetlands building at Perth Zoo.
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    My apologies for the quality of the photos taken in the exhibit area as photos
    were taken through two sheets of glass.


    Western swamp Turtoise/Tortle?
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    I even managed to see one basking.
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    As well as courtship behaviour and mating.
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    Perth Zoo Western swamp turtle (Pseudemydura umbrina) mating and egg laying area.
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    Multiple ponds and egg laying areas.
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    Western swamp turtle in pond.
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    Raised and insulated hatchling ponds with removable covers that protect the babies from the hot and cold extremes.
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    Adult female with nail polish dots that identify her allocated number and history.
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    2-4 day old hatchling.
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    3 year old juveniles.
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    Getting to fulfil one of my 'Bucket-list' wishes.
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    When I was leaving the facility, they checked the two remaining unhatched eggs
    and luckily for me, one was just hatching. It was laid on 17/12/2011 (hatched 01/06/2012).

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    Ellen Brook Nature Reserve. ~100 Hectares.
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    Electrified, fox proof fences.
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    'One way in' tunnels for roaming female and male Western swamp turtles that frequently
    climb the fences and go walkabout, even though they have 100+ hectares of protected
    reserve.

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    Shade structures to prevent wandering Western swamp turtles from dehydrating and dying when trying to return to the reserve to lay eggs, which has occurred in the past. One way entry tunnels are placed behind the shaded areas. The Western swamp turtles learn and remember where these tunnels are and use them frequently.
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    Ellen Brook Reserve Western swamp turtle typical habitat. Looking more like an African Savannah than a freshwater Turtle habitat.
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    Solar weather station monitoring water temperature, ambient temperature and rainfall etc.
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    A dry clay bed that large numbers of Western swamp turtles excavate tunnels under during the hot, dry season.
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    Dr. Gerald Kuchling radio tracking female Western swamp turtles.
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    A female located.
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    Some natural clay ponds and man-made plastic lined ponds that are filled by fire trucks in the event of extended droughts.
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    Here I am muddling for hatchling Western swamp turtles.
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    Twin Swamps Reserve (~150 hectares) Solar charger and battery for the electric fence.
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    Twin swamps habitat that has no water other than when the bore water pumps are turned on or the seasonal rains eventually come.
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    A radio-tracked female under the dried scrub.
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    AFT made a $500 donation to the Western swamp turtle breeding program, and I have been invited to help with finding more wild animals in areas that have not been thoroughly surveyed. I have been told that there is a strong possibility that there are individuals out there that can still be found. This would be a huge bonus, and will boost the low genetic diversity of this species.

    I hope to return one day to help with this project.:)
     
  2. Deb

    Deb Senior Turtle

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    What an interesting read and a great story! It must have been an awesome experience, it is fantastic to see that these beautiful turtles are getting help to keep their species alive and hopefully thrive.
     
  3. Allan

    Allan Senior Turtle

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    Very interesting to read and learn about this species, thanks Craig.
     
  4. Craig

    Craig Founding Member/Administrator/Public Officer
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    Thanks everyone, I took over a thousand photos to make sure that I could tell their story properly. I also took many photos of other wildlife and exhibits at Perth Zoo as well. I had an amazing time and I feel inspired to do more for these amazing creatures!

    I know that this is off topic, but I witnessed some amazing natural behaviour from WA parrots named 'Twenty-eights'. A male twenty-eight was wagging his tail to signal to his partner to come and look at a hollow he had found in a tree for her. Below are the sequence of events that unfolded.

    Male Twenty-eight looking at the potential nesting hollow
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    "Baby, come have a look at this wonderful hollow I found"
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    Still wagging his tail, expressing how happy he is with his choice of nesting spots.
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  5. khakkinen

    khakkinen Retired Tech Admin/Grease Monkey

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    That's amazing Craig. :D Thanks for telling us the story.
     
  6. IAN

    IAN Adult Turtle

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    Great stuff Craig.

    A terrific program to save a lovely animal. Very interesting photos etc.

    IAN :)
     
  7. Gaz

    Gaz Adult Turtle

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    Great article on one of Australia's little battlers! I had no idea of the similarities between them & tortoises, amazing. When are you planning your next WST trip?
     
  8. Craig

    Craig Founding Member/Administrator/Public Officer
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    Hi Gaz,

    Not too sure yet. I'll have to let you know.
     
  9. mr. pristis

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    Really enjoyed the article, thanks for sharing it!
     
  10. Craig

    Craig Founding Member/Administrator/Public Officer
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    Thanks and you're welcome!
     
  11. gonzo

    gonzo Juvenile Turtle

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    Great Pictures and story Craig!
    Would've been great to see..
    Cheers for that..
     
  12. megan

    megan Adult Turtle

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    Fantastic Post Craig! Thanks for sharing it. :)
     
  13. Craig

    Craig Founding Member/Administrator/Public Officer
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    Thanks Gonzo & Megan. Thanks also for reading it!
     
  14. Jen

    Jen Adult Turtle

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    Thanks Craig for posting, it's such an interesting thread.