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Bundy scientists discover endangered turtles

scientists turtles baffle
One of the critically endangered white-throated snapping turtles discovered by local scientists from the Burnett Mary Regional Group.

Bundaberg scientists from the Burnett Mary Regional Group (BMRG) have discovered critically endangered white-throated snapping turtles in Baffle Creek for the first time.

The researchers made the important discovery recently while assessing the waterway as part of the Australian Government’s Emergency Flood Recovery project for wildlife and habitat.

Until now, the white-throated snapping turtle’s natural distribution had been documented as the Fitzroy, Burnett and Mary Rivers.

BMRG Research Director Tom Espinoza said the breakthrough was a significant find for the scientific community and anyone interested in conservation of endangered species.

“It’s a very important discovery for my team because they’re young, up-and-coming scientists,” he said.

“It really ignites their passion.”

BMRG Project Officer Benjamin Hoekstra said it was the highlight of his professional career and a moment that would resonate with him for quite some time.

“Pulling in the first net and seeing the size of the large female turtle we had caught was exhilarating,” he said.

“It wasn’t until we started to process all the turtles, identifying the species and taking measurements did we start to realise the magnitude of catching three in this stretch of creek.”

Fellow BMRG Project Officer Sydney Collett said it was great that the turtles looked so healthy.

“It gives me hope that they are recovering, increasing distribution and are doing well,” she said.

“Often you don't hear the success stories in conservation, particularly with critically endangered species, but it's great to be a part of this good news.”

scientists turtles baffle
BMRG Project Officer Benjamin Hoekstra described the discovery of these turtles as a career highlight.

Baffle Creek, which borders the Bundaberg Region, has a freshwater section near Lowmead where nets were used to safely trap, record and release the turtles.

“It’s Baffle by name and baffle by nature,” Tom said.

“The catchment has a lot of value because it’s one of the only rivers on the east coast of Australia that doesn’t have any major water infrastructure on it.”

Three turtles were found in total – one female and two males.

“The significance of finding three of the turtles is there’s potentially a self-sustaining population of a critically endangered species,” he said.

“It extends the area we now know the species inhabits and genetically it could be very important.

“Historically, this catchment has been rarely sampled for freshwater threatened species, and it’s free of any dams or weirs.

“It’s a largely untouched, natural watercourse.”

scientists turtles baffle
BMRG Project Officer Sydney Collett with one of the three turtles found in Baffle Creek.

Tom said next steps included more comprehensive sampling, genetic analysis and risk assessment.

“It’s potentially an important research population to look at how a species behaves in its natural environment,” he said.

“Turtles are extremely important in rivers.

“They’re the vacuum cleaner of a watercourse; they clean up decomposing organic material and help to maintain good water quality.

“They’re also a totem for local First Nations people.”

The white-throated snapping turtle (Elseya albagula) grows to about 45cm long and is Australia’s largest freshwater turtle.

It can live for up to 100 years.

It’s known colloquially as a “bum-breathing turtle” because it can absorb oxygen through its anus while submerged.

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