With its punk rocker barnet and rather unusual ability to breathe underwater through its genitals, the Mary River turtle is not like most of us. Unfortunately, however, a new assessment shows that it is also struggling to survive.
The unorthodox turtle has made it onto a new list of Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) reptiles, highlighting not only its uniqueness but also its vulnerability. It will join the likes of more well-known reptiles, such as the world’s largest species of turtle, the leatherback, as well as some less familiar but equally fascinating creatures, such as a chameleon the size of a human thumbnail.
“Reptiles often receive the short end of the stick in conservation terms, compared with the likes of birds and mammals,” explained Rikki Gumbs, who coordinated the list and led a new PLOS ONE paper on what was found. “However, the EDGE Reptile List highlights just how unique, vulnerable, and amazing these creatures really are."
Their fancy hairdos – caused by algae that grow on their heads and shells – and the fact they are pretty chilled most of the time meant that the turtles were popular in the pet trade during the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, Mary River turtles were kept as pets in Australia for over 20 years before they were formally described as a new species.
By being able to exchange oxygen over their cloaca, which in reptiles is the single opening that functions as both the butt and the genitals, the turtles can stay underwater for an impressive three days.
But it seemed that even their genital-breathing superpowers couldn’t save the turtles from hurtling towards extinction as the collection of their eggs for the pet trade took its toll. Now classified as endangered, they make the EDGE list at number 30, having split from all other living creatures some 40 million years ago when Australia was still clinging on to Antarctica.
The list has been compiled by the Zoological Society of London, who have already created similar ones for mammals, birds, amphibians, and corals. Topping the EDGE reptile list is the Madagascan big-headed turtle, which sits alone on its branch of the evolutionary tree that split off an incredible 60 million years ago.
“Just as with tigers, rhinos, and elephants, it is vital we do our utmost to save these unique and too often overlooked animals,” said Gumbs. “Many EDGE Reptiles are the sole survivors of ancient lineages, whose branches of the Tree of Life stretch back to the age of the dinosaurs. If we lose these species there will be nothing like them left on Earth.”