Mystery Disease Driving Turtles To Extinction

189 Mystery Disease Driving Turtles To Extinction
Cheeky chappy Bellinger River snapping turtle. Sally Tsoutas / University of Western Sydney

A mystery disease has swept through the Bellinger River turtle's habitat, pushing the species to the brink of extinction. The unidentified pathogen, which has a 100% mortality rate, has left scientists in the region shell-shocked. They’ve managed to save just over a dozen individuals, now in captivity, and hope that more might survive out in the wild, but right now it’s not looking good.

The Bellinger River snapping turtle (Myuchelys georgesi) only lives in the river from which it takes its name, located in New South Wales, Australia. Previously of little conservation concern, since people first began to notice that something was up just a few months ago, the population has crashed by around 90%. Scientists from the University of Western Sydney have managed to find 17 apparently healthy individuals and have placed them into quarantine in the hope of starting a captive breeding program.


“There’s a real possibility they’ll become extinct, which is a tragedy really,” Dr Ricky Spencer, a zoologist at the University of Western Sydney told The Guardian. “For this to occur over the period of a month is very alarming. [...] It may take years before we find out what’s happened here. What we do know is that it kills and it kills rapidly. Within a month, the turtles have gone from not threatened to endangered or critically endangered.”

Dr. Ricky Spencer holding one of the turtles. Sally Tsoutas/University of Western Sydney

Alongside causing the animals to become lethargic, the unpleasant disease results in the formation of lesions both inside internal organs and around their eyes, eventually causing them to go blind and die of starvation. Since mid-February, over 400 dead or dying turtles have washed up on the banks of the river, prompting a major response from the authorities, who set up a wildlife biosecurity team to try to limit the spread of the disease. But with no one sure of exactly what has caused the deaths, it might be that the only hope lies with the few who are shell-tered in captivity.

The unprecedented decline announced on World Turtle Day is a sobering reminder of the precarious edge on which many turtle species rest. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that 62% of turtle species are at risk of extinction.      


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