Punk Turtles, a Species Well-Known After They’re Officially Endangered

There are a lot of turtle species, both freshwater and seawater, that normal people like us can only name a few. We don’t know their development or how they’re doing on Earth. So when one unique species become endangered like these funky-looking punk turtles, we freak out because we didn’t know this turtle exists before.

The punk turtle, officially The Mary River turtle, has whisker-like growths that comes out of its chin and strands of algae resting on its head. This becomes an iconic image of the species, because the algae resembles green mohawk, and the turtle looks like an aging rocker.

In addition to the algae-covered body and “whiskers”, there are other biological uniqueness that you should know. These turtles can breathe out of glands that looks like gills in its cloaca (it’s an opening that many reptiles have for excretion and mating).

With this, they can store oxygen and stay underwater for up to three days. And this makes them sort of breathe through their butt. I honestly didn’t know anything about this turtle, but once I do, I adore them. This quirky species becomes popular firstly because of unofficial kids’ poster that lists rare reptiles.

Elusor macrurus, the latin name of this turtle, got its name from the Mary River in Queensland, Australia. It’s special because that’s the only place on Earth where these turtles lives. No wonder that we’ve never really known about these turtles before because of its exclusivity.

And it was only last April that Zoological Society of London (ZSL) listed this rare turtle on the world’s 100 most endangered reptiles, ranking 29th.

The list is a part of ZSL’s program called EDGE of Existence (the EDGE is an acronym for Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered). This program highlights some of the world’s most unique species which are prone to extinction and have their own branches. And now the program wants to raise awareness and protection of these one-of-a-kind turtles.

“Reptiles often receive the short end of the stick in conservation terms, compared with the likes of birds and mammals. The EDGE reptiles list highlights just how unique, vulnerable and amazing these creatures really are,” said Rikki Gumbs, EDGE reptiles coordinator.

And yeah, this turtle only have few close relatives. According to EDGE website, Mary River turtles drifted apart from modern turtles around 40 million years ago. As a result, the turtles have unique features that you won’t find in modern turtles.

Read also: Did you know that these 5 species have been saved from total extinction?

Gumbs briefly explained the rarity of these turtles, “Many EDGE reptiles are the sole survivors of ancient lineages, whose branches of the tree of life stretch back to the age of the dinosaurs.”

Mary River turtles have long tails that can grow up to 70% longer than their shells. Other than that, their “whiskers” (or scientifically, tubercles) that grow under their chin allow them to feel around on the river bed. Much like cats’ whiskers.

This is why they’re such an irreplaceable and distinctive species that exist on Earth. This good thing, however, comes with a risk of the turtles’ extinction. A study done in 2017 estimated that there are only around 136 turtles left in the wild. It means that the total population has been depleted by more than 95 percent.

“Just as with tigers, rhinos and elephants, it is vital we do our utmost to save these unique and too often overlooked animals,” said Gumbs. Considering that these turtles have been around longer than modern humans (which came to rise only 10 million years ago), we should also keep this species alive and thriving.

Read also: 5 Most Threatened Animals in the World.

Just around 100 years of human intervention.rapidly decreases the turtles’ population. Their habitat is only in Mary River, and a dam construction in 2009 disrupted and threatened their only place to live. The construction was eventually cancelled, but that wasn’t the end.

Feral animals, cattle grazing, and decreasing water quality have made the population decline. But the one that made the number significantly drop down is pet trade. Back in 1960s and 70s, these turtles was so popular as pets due to their unique looks and their submissive traits.

During that era, there are over 15,000 hatchlings that are bought and sold in a lot of pet shops around Australia every year. People got the turtles and probably their eggs mainly by disturbing and stealing their nests in the river. That popularity is rewarded with the species’ brink of extinction. Fortunately, they’re protected by Australian government today.

Read also: Pets that you should never release on the wild.

The sad truth

Even though Mary River turtles are an important case right now, there are actually a lot of rare reptiles that need conservation. But as Gumbs said, they’re often overlooked. He said, “It’s important for people to not just focus on this one Mary river turtle. Many more are threatened.”

Other reptiles are also at risk of extinction. There are pig-nose turtles that also breathe through their butts, has a little snout and to large nostrils (hence the pig name), as well as wide flippers. These turtles are facing habitat loss in Australia, and in some countries, they’re getting rarer because they’re killed for the meat.

Maadagascar blind snake by Bernard Dupont Wikimedia Commons
Maadagascar blind snake by Bernard Dupont Wikimedia Commons

Snakes are in need of protection as well, like the rose gold Round Island keel-scaled boa and Madagascar blind snake. So Mary River turtles are not the only reptile on EDGE’s new list. In fact, there are 10 of them.

And what makes things worse is that they’ve been getting less attention than mammals in terms of conservation efforts. Gumbs suspect that it’s because reptiles don’t have cute and cuddly looks, so they’re less popular. It’s changing now, as there are more reptile lovers, but this unfairness is still there.

“They freak a lot of people out. We can look at mammals and see things that remind us of ourselves, but the Mary river turtle is so unlike us,” he added.

And this is true. Studies in the past revealed that cuter animals are more empathy-provoking and are more favored by conservationists. That cuteness comes from animal characteristics such as big eyes, round faces, and possibly squeaky sounds. And where do you usually find those? In mammals.

But in short, we should start to open our eyes to other species which doesn’t get as much attention as the others. After all, they all contribute to Earth’s well-being, and like Mr. Gumbs said, “If we lose these species there will be nothing like them left on Earth.”




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