Turtle survival in the balance

There’s some hope for the turtles at Frederick Baldwin Park with hatchlings like this cutie being found. Photo by April Sturm.

DESPITE a new recovery program kicking off in three Melville wetlands, researchers fear the snake-necked turtle could still end up on WA’s threatened species list.

Murdoch University’s Harry Butler Institute is using a $131,000 Lotterywest grant to roll out its new Saving our Snaked Turtle Project which uses citizen scientists to find and monitor female turtles and their eggs at Frederick Baldwin Park in Kardinya, Blue Gum Lake in Mt Pleasant and Juett Park within Piney Lakes.

The institute’s deputy director Stephen Beatty says the information gathered by the volunteers will help determine the turtles’ numbers and distribution, as the species was “slipping under the radar in terms of conservation efforts”.

Lack of ecological monitoring has made it difficult to determine population changes over time.

The turtles are certainly in decline, but in June this year the researchers were surprised by a small population of snake-necked turtles which had been discovered in the very suburban Frederick Baldwin Park. 

“The population is just hanging on,” Dr Beatty said. 

“Fortunately we did get a few juveniles in there, so that shows that they are reproducing – but at a very very low rate.”  

Snake-necked turtles are an endemic species confined to the South West region of Western Australia. They are the apex aquatic predator in natural wetlands and an important species in the food chain.  

The project aims to train citizen scientists to go into these places of habitat and look for female nests. 

Once these nests have been found, they can then be protected by a simple cage which prevents the eggs from being dug up.  

A second research project led by Murdoch University honours student April Sturm involves sourcing eggs from female turtles who have been run over and attempting to hatch them in incubators. 

The hatchings get released and tracked at Bibra Lake, allowing the institute’s researchers to identify which habitats the juvenile turtles prefer.  

“These hatchlings will be now used to monitor habitat use and survival after release, which will also help us understand how we can better protect them,” Ms Sturm said. 

The project aims to identify what additional habitats need to be established to help steady, and eventually increase, the turtle population.  

However, these natural wetlands are under extreme stress.  

A study conducted by Murdoch PhD student Anthony Santoro found that of the 35 wetlands surveyed in the metropolitan region, most were missing their turtles or only had a few, while the lack of juvenile turtles was a major concern.

Predators such as foxes and dogs, alongside urban threats associated with land clearing and roads were the main culprits.  

The environment surrounding these wetlands should ideally be soft and easy to dig through; native vegetation and sand. However, the creation of parks covered in lawn has meant the turtles are finding it difficult to dig through to lay their eggs. 

Dr Beatty says humans can, and should be doing a lot better at protecting the native vegetation around wetlands.  

“If you have wetlands that have still got some remnant native vegetation, or revegetation, that’s very beneficial for the relative abundance of turtles,” Dr Beatty said.  

Mr Santoro has been training new Turtle Tracker teams across Perth and the South West in preparation for the upcoming turtle nesting season. The public is encouraged to keep their eyes out for nesting females, as they are particularly vulnerable to being run over. 

“Slow down and really be aware when driving around wetlands,” Dr Beatty said. 

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