Manning River turtle births mark important milestone for 'living, breathing dinosaur'

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Oct 28, 2017
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ABC Mid North Coast
By Kerrin Thomas and Emma Siossian

VIDEO: Manning River turtles (ABC News)

Ten turtle hatchlings may not seem like a lot, but it is an important milestone for the Manning River turtle, an endangered freshwater species that dates back 85 million years.

Found only in the Manning River catchment on the New South Wales mid north coast, the turtle is the focus of a captive insurance and conservation program run by Aussie Ark.

The group's president, Tim Faulkner, said it was the oldest turtle species in Australia and essentially a "living, breathing dinosaur" that played an important role in the river.

"They're actually garbage cleaners of the river ... anything that goes into the water, be it plant or animal that's diseased or rotting, they clean it up, and you can imagine what that does for the water quality," he said.
PHOTO: The turtle eggs were rescued from a river bank. (Supplied: Aussie Ark)

The eggs were rescued from the river bank as waters rose following rainfall earlier this year.

The hatchlings, the first of their kind to be born as part of a captive insurance population, will be kept for several months before being released.

"Essentially we get them up and fit and healthy, and then we figure out where we put them back in the system," Mr Faulkner said.
PHOTO: One of the 10 hatchlings from the first clutch collected by Aussie Ark. (Supplied)

"Ten turtles might not seem like many, and I'm the first to say it's not, but there's somewhere around 1,000 of these things — that's it, that's the world population.

"This is our first year of breeding or rescuing eggs like that; we've also got another 20 in the incubator that are due to hatch in the coming weeks."

It is hoped that as the program expands, hundreds of turtles will be released each year.

"The thing is that there are no young turtles in the system, there really is no recruitment," Mr Faulkner said.

"The feral fox is annihilating them, so when the females come out to lay their eggs, the foxes have turtle egg season — they go along and eat all the eggs, and sometimes they eat the females while they're laying them.

"I've snorkelled those rivers and I've been surveying the turtle for many years, and I've seen three smallish ones, cup-saucer size."

Community group celebrating
The Manning River Turtle Conservation Group is working in the community to improve knowledge of the turtle's plight.
PHOTO: Bob was rescued during dry conditions and is in rehabilitation. (ABC News: Kerrin Thomas)

"They've survived 55 million years and we don't want to see them disappear on our watch," co-founder Kerrie Guppy said.

"It's such exciting news with all the sad news, the bad news in the world ... it's definitely inspiring, we're really excited."

PHOTO: Manning River Turtle Conservation Group members Brenton Asquith, Kerrie Guppy and Clare Rourke. (ABC News: Kerrin Thomas)

A turtle rescued from the river before Christmas is doing well and has been taken into a local school as part of an education program.

"It was very ill at the time and malnourished, and that's sort of expected with the conditions of the river at the time," carer Brenton Asquith said.

"The turtle's shedding, which is a sign of growth; it's fattening back up, it's looking healthy and it's a lot more active."

Bellinger River turtles also doing well
Another population of turtles, these ones critically endangered, has also received a welcome population boost.

Taronga Zoo's insurance population of the Bellinger River snapping turtle had 35 babies hatch this year
PHOTO: A mystery virus killed 90 per cent of the Bellinger River snapping turtle population. (Supplied: Taronga Zoo/Paul Fahy)

Endemic to the Bellinger River, the species of freshwater turtle was almost wiped out in 2015 when a novel virus infiltrated the river.

A group of healthy turtles was rescued to establish the insurance population.

Taronga reptile keeper Adam Skidmore said it was the population's fourth successful breeding season.

"We now have nearly 100 of these turtles living at our quarantine facility and the hatchlings are doing really well — eating lots and growing — and we are really happy with their development," he said.