There are only four Yangtze giant softshell turtles (Rafetus swinhoei) in the world. Two (a male and female, both approximately 100 years old) have resided together in captivity at China’s Suzhou Zoo since 2008, while the other two (both male) live in Vietnam.
For the female, it’s certainly not easy being the last of her kind. But it has not exactly been smooth sailing for the male, either. Though the pair have mated many times over the years, the female has never produced fertile eggs.
Puzzled by this tragic duo and keen to rescue this species from extinction, scientists decided to take a less natural method and tried to procure a semen sample from the centenarian male to artificially inseminate the female.
However, it seems as though the male just wasn’t in the mood for a false frisson. When manual stimulation and the use of a vibrator didn’t quite do it for the mature turtle, the scientists took to a more electrifying method.
Previous research reported that the use of sedation and electro-ejaculation on another softshell turtle worked to get things going for semen retrieval. Electrifying any 100-year-old creature would be potentially life-threatening, but to save this species from extinction, desperate times call for desperate measures.
As he was anesthetized, researchers finally discovered the root of the turtle’s non-reproductive rutting. The male had damaged sex organs: These were impaired enough to block his swimmers from swimming but not weakened enough to stop him from rising to the occasion. Researchers reckon this injury may have been the result of a territorial fight with another male turtle many years ago.
With the surprising revelation made and a sample acquired, the female was successfully inseminated. No pressure on her but she is expected to lay a clutch of up to 60 eggs in the next few weeks. Researchers will then test to see if the eggs are fertile.
“Many reptiles have a change in the appearance of the egg called ‘banding’ or ‘chalking’ when they are fertile and in the early stages of incubation,” says Paul Calle, chief veterinarian for the Wildlife Conservation Society's Bronx Zoo, in a press release. This process only takes a few days at most, providing a quick indication if the eggs are fertile.
Hopefully, if the eggs do ‘band’, they will hatch. “The gene pool will obviously be small, but having babies obviously would be very good for the species,” Calle says. “Without babies there is no hope.”
Any hatched newborns could potentially also breed and further expand the species, though this won’t happen for at least another 15 years, says Fort Worth Zoo biologist and TSA president Rick Hudson.
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, this is the first time artificial insemination has been attempted with any species of softshell turtle. Unfortunately, based on results of previous impregnation attempts for others turtles, these efforts may be in vain.
Nevertheless, zoo officials remain optimistic. "This autumn, the female Rafetus swinhoei will be moved back to Changsha Zoo," said Vice Director Yan Xiahui of Changsha Zoo, where the turtle originally came from. "We hope some children move together with her."
It may be a long process riddled with difficulties, but this insemination attempt could bring the Yangtze giant softshell turtle back from being critically endangered.
[H/T Scientific American]