In 2015, a deadly virus wiped up to 90 per cent of the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle population making them critically endangered. The turtle species, only found in the Bellinger River catchment suffered from unusual and severe inflammatory lesions from a new and unknown disease. Dr Karrie Rose from the Australian Registry of Wildlife Health at Taronga Zoo headed a team of experts to seek out the cause of the virus and the total impact it had on the turtle population.
Additional field work is being undertaken to test any remnant turtles found as the animals emerge from torpor, and to survey other species in the waterway for the possible presence of the virus.
An emergency response team from Taronga and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage acted quickly to help save the remaining turtles collecting samples and analysing just how many turtles survived the lethal virus.
Of the surviving turtles, 16 were relocated to Taronga Zoo to establish a breeding program for the species.
“There are very few mature turtles remaining in the wild, so this group at Taronga has a vital role to play in rebuilding the population,” said Keeper, Adam Skidmore.
The selected 16 turtles were placed in quarantine at Western Sydney University before being moved to their new home at Taronga Zoo.
The pathogen that wiped out the majority of the species is yet to be identified.
It’s clear the turtles had not been exposed to this particular pathogen before. For a disease to wipe out 90% of the population, it had to be something entirely new to the species.
Coming into Taronga Zoo last year, the species were completely conservation dependant. In 2016 there were as few as 200 remaining in the wild.
This year there is hope.
21 tiny turtles hatched at the Zoo this January and February.
There could be as few as 200 Bellinger River Snapping Turtles remaining in the wild, so these hatchlings have a vital role to play in rebuilding this population.
Adam Skidmore was surprised at how quickly the 16 turtles settled into their new home.
Four of the five female turtles even produced eggs this season.
“We weren’t really expecting any hatchlings this year, so it was an amazing result to get four clutches of eggs. The team was very excited to see the first hatchlings push their way out of the eggs,” Mr Skidmore said.
The new hatchlings are settling in well- swimming around, and are being watched closely in a special quarantined area at Taronga. The long-term aim of the breeding program at Taronga is to raise and release hatchlings back into Bellinger River.