CUTE REPTILE: The vulnerable Fitzroy River Turtle, otherwise known as the
CUTE REPTILE: The vulnerable Fitzroy River Turtle, otherwise known as the "bum-breathing turtle" population is slowly recovering thanks to conservation efforts. Greening Australia

Fitzroy River's 'bum-breathing turtles' get a helping hand

AFTER being driven to the brink, Fitzroy River's unique "bum-breathing turtle” population is on the way back thanks to a nest protection project.

With almost 100% of the vulnerable "bum-breathing turtle” nests typically lost to predation, the project has given over 5,000 tiny Fitzroy River Turtles, measuring the size of a 20-cent piece on hatching, a much-needed hand.

A Fitzroy River Turtle hatchling next to a 50 cent coin showing its small size.
A Fitzroy River Turtle hatchling next to a 50 cent coin showing its small size. Greening Australia

VIDEO: Baby turtles get a helping hand

For six days a week between September and December, Greening Australia Field Officer Kymberly Robinson and her volunteers braved the Fitzroy River's many crocodiles to locate and protect turtle nests by covering them with a protective mesh until the eggs are ready to hatch.

"They are a really unique animal to the Rockhampton region as they are found only in the Fitzroy Basin and are bum-breathers - they breathe through gills in an area called the cloaca. This enables them to stay underwater for up to 21 days at a time,” Ms Robinson said. .

Concerns were raised about the future of the threatened reptile after surveys indicated that the population is ageing due to the low survival rate of youngsters.

Environmental Field Officer Kymberly Robinson said sadly her project funding is drying up.
Environmental Field Officer Kymberly Robinson said sadly her project funding is drying up. Chris Ison ROK261115cturtle7

"Last season we protected 93 individual turtle nests, from which we believe 1,661 healthy hatchlings emerged and entered the water,” she said.

"Unfortunately, we did lose a few nests but 87 hatched successfully which is significant.”

Ms Robinson said the turtles nest on steep, sandy banks laying between 16 to 20 tiny, oval-shaped eggs in a chamber beneath the sand which leaves behind "a lovely mark like a sand angel”.

"Without protection, almost all the Fitzroy River Turtle's nests are typically lost to predators, particularly feral animals like foxes, cats and pigs,” she said.

"By protecting the nests, we significantly increase the number of young entering the water.”

Environmental Field Officer Kymberly Robinson identified and protected more than 80 Fitzroy River Turtle nesting sites along a section of the Fitzroy River in 2015.
Environmental Field Officer Kymberly Robinson identified and protected more than 80 Fitzroy River Turtle nesting sites along a section of the Fitzroy River in 2015. Chris Ison ROK261115cturtle6

The mesh prevents predators from digging up the nests, while still allowing the tiny hatchlings to emerge. Once in the water the hatchlings face a tough life until maturity, with only an estimated 1 out of every 100 surviving.

"There is lots more that we could be doing to help the turtles, such as improving our knowledge through research, restoring habitat and feral predator trapping.”

Ms Robinson said the 12km stretch of the river they monitor, represents only a tiny portion of the key habitat

"It would be really great to be able to expand the area and scope of our work,” Ms Robinson said.

Environmental Field Officer Kymberly Robinson patrolling a 12km section of the Fitzroy River where she is working to protect Fitzroy River Turtle nesting sites from predators.
Environmental Field Officer Kymberly Robinson patrolling a 12km section of the Fitzroy River where she is working to protect Fitzroy River Turtle nesting sites from predators. Chris Ison ROK261115cturtle1

We don't know a lot about these little turtles and it would be good to learn what happens to them once they enter the water and what impact our work is having.”

"These unique turtles are found in only this one river on Earth, so it is really important that we give them a fighting chance. It is a real privilege to be involved in helping to save this pretty awesome little species.”

This project is supported by Fitzroy Basin Association Inc. with funding made available through the Australian Government's National Landcare Programme.


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