Varying results on Manning River helmeted turtle surveys by Tim Faulkner and Dr Bruce Chessman

Turtle family: Tim Faulkner with sons Billy (left) and Matty with Manning River helmeted turtles they caught during a recent survey on the Manning River. Photo: courtesy Tim Faulkner
Turtle family: Tim Faulkner with sons Billy (left) and Matty with Manning River helmeted turtles they caught during a recent survey on the Manning River. Photo: courtesy Tim Faulkner

Tim Faulkner, general manager and director of the Australian Reptile Park and Aussie Ark, has spent the last three weekends snorkelling the upper reaches of the Manning River with his family.

Tim and his sons, Billy and Matty, who are clearly following in their father’s wildlife conservation footsteps, have been searching for endangered Manning River helmeted turtles (Myuchelys purvisi), on a personal mission to gather data, and the results have been a mixed bag.

“Six unsuccessful holes, and one honeypot,” Tim says.

The ‘honeypot’ was located right up in the upper reaches of the Manning – the furthest distribution of the turtles’ range. In this hole, Tim caught 17 Purvisi – four adult females, four or five adult males, and the rest sub-adult male and female and unknown.

“It was incredible,” Tim says. “I found one female that was full of eggs - I could feel them.”

For the collection of data what I’m doing is recording shell length, sex of the animal, general health, water quality, recent rain, temperature of water, and location.

Tim Faulkner

What made this hole different from the others he surveyed was a lack of siltation.

“Somewhere like that that’s coming out from the mountains that’s getting a good flush of water every now and then, that’s reasonably undisturbed - it hasn’t suffered the same siltation problems as further downstream,” Tim says.

River health has an obvious impact on where turtles will be found.

“The [Manning] river hasn’t had a good flush for a while. It does have a lot of black silt. Wherever the silt is, if you put your finger on it, it creates a dust cloud,” Tim explains.

Tim measures the carapace of a Manning River helmeted turtle. Photo: Tim Faulkner

Tim measures the carapace of a Manning River helmeted turtle. Photo: Tim Faulkner

“An analogy to that would be an octopus squirting ink. The turtles don’t like it! They can’t see so they don’t use it. So siltation is an issue.

“Where they are is on nice gravelly sections where a little bit of current comes through and makes a bit of an eddy. They’re really strong on those gravelly sections, gravel and pebble, and furthermore where the rock comes down to the water. They love those rocky sides.”

Unfortunately, Tim also found two nests that had been destroyed by foxes.

Tim’s unofficial surveys serve three purposes, the renowned conservationist says. 

A turtle nest that had been destroyed by foxes.

A turtle nest that had been destroyed by foxes.

““One is to contribute to science and build up that database to get this species out of data deficient [classification] and get the recognition that it deserves.

“Two is to refine my technique so I know I’m going to do it right when I go to collect, and three is to learn survey methods.”

While Tim’s surveying is a personal task, all data he collects he is voluntarily giving to a government database. 

I found nest sites, both of them destroyed by foxes, presumably foxes - destroyed, absent of eggs.

Tim Faulkner

Meanwhile, ecologist Dr Bruce Chessman has been surveying the Manning River from Bundook down to Wingham, and Dingo and Bobin Creeks last week with poor results.

He reports having found three adult turtles, male and female, yet no juveniles. 

However Dr Chessman was using a different survey method – trapping. 

“During the day I’m required [by Fisheries] to check the traps every two hours but I can leave them for 12 hours overnight,” Dr Chessman said.

“What tends to happen overnight is that eels enter the traps and they consume all the bait and they probably frighten turtles off as well, which makes the overnight trapping less effective, I suspect.”

It is thought that snorkelling by experienced divers is a more effective way of surveying the turtle, as the species tends to be trap shy.

“The survey methods of trapping turtles are dated,” Tim says.

Ecologist and turtle surveyor Dr Bruce Chessman pulls a trap from the Manning River. Photo: Jennifer Granger

Ecologist and turtle surveyor Dr Bruce Chessman pulls a trap from the Manning River. Photo: Jennifer Granger

“They work but really for me they give an indication of whether turtles are present or not. Because you’re going to catch one or two.

“By snorkelling like this, with experienced divers, it’s such a higher hit rate. My gut feel is that wherever past surveys have found three or four turtles, I would find 15 to 20. Wherever the surveys find one, I would find five to 10.

“Developing survey techniques, that is snorkelling versus trapping, can have a higher yield. Some survey techniques are wonderful for presence of the species, that is, whether they are present or not, whereas snorkelling can have a much more thorough approach and really establish the population densities aside from location,” he says.

Tim Faulkner hopes to start collecting turtles in February 2019 for to establish an insurance population of Manning River helmeted turtles at the Australian Reptile Park