Securing a shared future for wildlife and people

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Adam Skidmore holds one of the Bellinger River Turtles

Bellinger River Snapping Turtles have been observed mating in their new home at Taronga Zoo, giving hope to researchers working to save the critically endangered species from extinction.

A group of 16 turtles has been relocated to Taronga to establish a breeding program for the species, after a newly discovered disease wiped out up to 90% of the local population on the NSW mid-north coast last year.

“There are very few mature turtles remaining in the wild, so this group at Taronga has a vital role to play in rebuilding the population,” said Keeper, Adam Skidmore.

“We’re optimistic that we can establish a successful breeding group here to ultimately raise and release hatchlings back into the Bellinger River. The turtles are settling in well and we’ve started to see mating between pairs as the weather gets warmer.”

Taronga veterinarians will conduct ultrasounds on the turtles later this month to determine if any females are carrying eggs.

The Bellinger River Snapping Turtle is a unique species found along the Bellinger River catchment system. The small population of 1200-4000 turtles was dealt a devastating blow in early 2015 when hundreds of turtles were found dying from a newly discovered disease that caused severe internal organ damage and blindness.

An emergency response team from Taronga and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage was formed to investigate the event and coordinate the rescue of a group of healthy turtles to establish an insurance population.

The 16 turtles were placed in quarantine at Western Sydney University before moving to a purpose-built quarantine facility at Taronga in April. The turtles have been screened for the disease on multiple occasions since, with all results coming back negative.

Meanwhile researchers continue to investigate the factors leading up to the mortality event in an effort to better understand its exact nature and cause.

“It’s clear the turtles had not been exposed to this particular pathogen before. For a disease to wipe out 90% of the population, it had to be something entirely new to the species,” said the lead researcher, Dr Karrie Rose from the Australian Registry of Wildlife Health.

Researchers continue to monitor the remaining turtles and other wildlife in the Bellinger River catchment system.

“This species is completely conservation dependant. There could be as few as 200 individuals remaining in the wild, so they really need our help,” said Dr Rose.

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