Town Saves the Threatened Bum-Breathing Punk Turtle – a 9lb Wonder Found Only in the Mary River


Australia is filled with wild and wonderful critters, but few surpass the novelty of the Mary River turtle—which was once one of the continent’s most endangered.

Now however, the dedication of 800 residents in the town of Tiaro is seeing the turtle repopulate the river from which it draws its name, a point of pride for the locals, and the nation as they both celebrate a conservation win.

The Mary River turtle, (Elusor macrusus) is also known fondly as the “Bum-breathing punk” for its peculiar evolutionary capacity to breathe through its cloaca which allows it to stay underwater for three days without surfacing.

One of Australia’s largest turtle species, the MR turtle can weigh in at close to 20 pounds and grow 20 inches nose to tail. Also sometimes called the green-haired turtle, it collects algae on its head and shell over time, making it seem like it’s sporting a dyed-green mohawk, hence the name ‘punk.’

Also unique to the MR turtle is the tail. It has haemal arches, an osseo feature typically used to identify sauropod dinosaurs but which has been lost in all other modern turtles. In short, the MR turtle is unique in modern evolution.

This species, which lives entirely in the Mary River and five tributaries in southeast Queensland, was incidentally brought to the brink of extinction by turtle egg hunters looking to sell baby turtles at various venues.

They were called ‘penny turtles,’ and the marketing effort was all done without realizing the species that the eggs were coming from was so unique and sensitive.

Starting in 2001, the town of Tiaro launched a program to protect the turtle’s nests and eggs in situ. During nesting season, volunteers are up early to locate new nesting sites and fence them off, protecting them against livestock and invasive egg filchers like foxes.

The Mary River turtle – credit Marilyn Connell, the Mary River Turtle Project/Tiaro Land Care
The Mary River turtle – credit Marilyn Connell, the Mary River Turtle Project/Tiaro Land Care

Recently, a scientific analysis has shown that not only did the program bear fruit in terms of the number of turtles present on the Mary and what the survival rate of hatchlings is, but also in terms of the quantity of scientific data gathered by the locals.

But the success didn’t happen overnight. The town raised money to fund scholarships for students to study the turtles at university and buy research equipment by selling homemade chocolate turtles as a fundraiser.

In 2006, photographer Chris Van Wyk captured iconic imagery of the turtle’s green ‘hair’ which went as viral as they could have done back then, also helping to raise awareness of the reptile.

The turtle remains endangered, but not only have the turtle’s numbers rebounded, but the research efforts of the citizens of Tiaro have created protocols for local water resource planning and strategic development to always take into account the watershed and habitat of the turtle when making any decisions.

This article by Andy Corbley was first published by The Good News Network on 13 May 2024. Lead Image: The Mary River turtle – credit Marilyn Connell, the Mary River Turtle Project/Tiaro Land Care.

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