Desert turtle thriving in outback's boom or bust drought conditions

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  1. Flaviemys purvisi

    Flaviemys purvisi Very Well-Known Member

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    By Craig Fitzsimmons
    24/12/2019
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    An adult Cooper Creek, or Emmott's, short-neck turtle on the banks of Cooper Creek.
    Supplied: Angus Emmott



    A species of large river turtle is thriving in Queensland's drought-stricken outback and researchers want to uncover the secret to its success.

    The Cooper Creek — or Emmott's — short-neck turtle lives in one of Australia's last wild river systems in the Channel Country.

    But not a great deal is known about the cold-blooded creature.

    Conservation biologist Debbie Bower from the University of New England travelled more than 1,500 kilometres to Noonbah Station in outback Queensland to find out more.

    "We're interested in what it is about this system that makes [the turtles] grow so big," she said.

    "[We're] looking at climate change and what might happen into the future if we have long periods of drought."
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    Dr Bower and Dr McKnight capturing turtles in Cooper Creek, near Noonbah Station.
    Supplied: Angus Emmott



    How the turtles thrived through the natural 'boom or bust' flows in the river system was what intrigued the researchers.

    "The Cooper Creek turtle is really cool because it grows really, really large," Dr Bower said.

    "Some of them are babies, some of them are juveniles … all the way up to really big old adults."

    Fully grown turtles can reach a shell diameter of up to 36 centimetres.

    Big flows through the river system in recent years have provided plenty of young turtles to restock the river.

    Dr Bower said they were surprised to find so many hatchlings.

    "Often baby turtles are hard to find but we've found everything [including] hatchlings with yolk scars still on their bellies," she said.

    "So they've hatched only a week ago and they've [still] got a little egg tooth on their face."

    Turtles of the outback
    Fellow researcher Donald McKnight, who accompanied Dr Bower to Noonbah, studied turtle ecology in the US before moving to Australia for his PhD studies.
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    Researchers want to understand how the turtles survive when good nutrients are only available some of the time.
    Supplied: Angus Emmott



    "It's really exciting to see turtles out here. It's just so different to anywhere else I've worked on turtles," Dr McKnight said.

    "This is such a harsh system that only has good nutrients for a small part of the year.

    "We really want to understand how they survive in it and really seem to thrive in it."


    Understanding ecology
    The man behind the turtle's name, Angus Emmott, grew up on Noonbah and now runs the station.

    In 2003 Emydura macquarii emmotti was named after Mr Emmott due to his research on the subspecies.
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    Plenty of Cooper Creek short-neck turtle hatchlings is a good indicator the river is healthy.
    Supplied: Angus Emmott



    Mr Emmott, a natural history expert, was thrilled to see the initial body of research by Professor Arthur Georges being expanded upon.

    "It's really interesting to have [the researchers] here; it is neat talking about turtles and the river," he said.

    "I really like to have the turtles in the river. It adds a really interesting dimension to the river and when the subspecies is named after me it makes it even more special."

    Healthy river life was an indication of a healthy river and Mr Emmott wanted to see the research continue into the next decade.

    "Part of the benefit over the longer term is understanding how our rivers work and what's needed to keep them in good health," he said.

    "This is just one very small cog in understanding how ecology works."
     

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