Rare Manning River Turtle endangered

Living fossil: Juvenile Manning River Turtle. Note the two small 'barbels' beneath the chin and the yellow markings on the face and neck - combined they are indentifying features of the turtle. Picture: Gary Stephenson
Living fossil: Juvenile Manning River Turtle. Note the two small 'barbels' beneath the chin and the yellow markings on the face and neck - combined they are indentifying features of the turtle. Picture: Gary Stephenson

Alarm bells are ringing for the future of an extremely rare and endangered turtle that is found only in the upper and middle tributaries of the Manning River.

However, chances are if you ask residents of the Valley and its upper tributaries if they know of the turtle, the vast majority would say they had never heard of it.

There are seven species of freshwater turtles in NSW, and two of them are found nowhere else in the world.

One of these is the Manning River Turtle, also known as the Manning River Helmeted or Snapping Turtle, and Purvis’ Short-necked Turtle.

The turtle is nearly identical to the Bellinger River Turtle, with its distinctive yellow markings and two barbels under the chin. Initially it was thought to be a close relative of the Bellinger turtle however more recent genetic testing has revealed that the two species are genetically distinct.

The Manning River Turtle is not to be confused with the prolific Eastern long-necked turtle, which is often seen crossing our roads.

“The Purvis’ turtle is very distinct from other species of turtle and as such is a species of considerable conservation value,” said Professor Arthur Georges PhD from the University of Canberra.

“Little is known of this species and its full distribution in the river”.

Dr Bruce Chessman searches for the elusive Manning River Turtle.

Extremely ancient

Purvis' turtle: Watercolour and gouache painting by wildlife artist Peter Schouten AM, who was previously a technical illustrator within the school of zoology at the University of New South Wales.

Purvis' turtle: Watercolour and gouache painting by wildlife artist Peter Schouten AM, who was previously a technical illustrator within the school of zoology at the University of New South Wales.

Peter Schouten AM, who in 2016 became a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to wildlife illustration and the preservation and documentation of national history, says the Manning River Turtle is more than 55 million years old.

“It’s much, much more ancient than the Bellinger turtle. It’s actually a living fossil,” Peter said.

The Bellinger River Turtle population was decimated in 2015 due to a disease and in a biosecurity bulletin issued by the NSW Department of Primary Industries in September 2015, it was stated that it was “important to heighten surveillance” in the Manning River Turtle.

Thankfully, to date the disease has not not been found in the Manning Rivers Turtle population. But concern is high within the zoological and ecological community that the species is under threat of extinction.

In September 2016, the NSW Scientific Committee established by the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 published a preliminary determination to list the Manning River Turtle as an endangered species.

The turtle previously had  no conservation status, as it has been poorly studied and the exact size of the population is not known. The preliminary determination said a study in 1998 “noted that the Manning River Helmeted Turtle is more abundant than the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle … however more recently the abundance of Manning River Helmeted Turtles appears to have declined dramatically”.

It’s much, much more ancient than the Bellinger turtle. It’s actually a living fossil.

Peter Schouten AM

This is supported by a study Dr Bruce Chessman (NSW Office of Environment and Heritage ecologist) in 2013 in which he reported that they only found a few turtles in three of six sites, and none of those were juveniles.

Predation by foxes, wild pigs, dogs, birds, goannas and fish, along with degradation of habitat, human interference and poaching are cited as reasons for the decline in the turtle population.

“Their ability to recover from a catastrophic loss of adults caused by disease, poaching or other causes is likely to be limited,” the NSW Scientific Committee Preliminary Determination found.

Another significant threat to the turtle species is interbreeding with and competition from the Macquarie Turtle, which is also found in our rivers.

What you can do

Manning Valley local Jennifer Granger found a Manning River Turtle south west of Wingham in November, 2016. Photo: Amylia Eddie.

Manning Valley local Jennifer Granger found a Manning River Turtle south west of Wingham in November, 2016. Photo: Amylia Eddie.

To help protect the unique turtle, download TurtleSAT - an app for mobile phones and tablets which you can use to report turtle sightings.

Dr Ricky Spencer from the University of Sydney, and his team, developed TurtleSAT. Dr Spencer says he considers that the turtle may be critically endangered.

Information gathered from the app on the location and numbers of turtles and their nests will help researchers determine the population’s health and distribution.

If you find a sick or injured total, report it to National Parks and Wildlife Service Manning Area on 6552 4097.

This story Our living fossil disappearing | photos and video first appeared on Wingham Chronicle.