Friday, 17 January 2014

01 Feb 2014

An informal newsletter for research on Freshwater Turtles in Australasia  

TopFebruary, 2014

Welcome to the first issue of a new informal newsletter communicating the results of recent research on freshwater turtles of Australasia and some of the impacts that research is having on policy and management.
The newsletter is informal, in that it is not associated with any particular society, but rather an avenue for communicating discoveries and ideas among a loose collection of individuals interested in research on this fascinating element of our fauna.

Editorial oversight will be initially provided by Ricky-J Spencer  (UWS) and Arthur Georges (UC).

We are looking for short snippets of news, research highlights, new publications, conference reports, successes in science and technology communication with the community, indeed anything at all that you think would be good to share with colleagues.

This first issue is just a selection of stories, and has a strong bias -- help fix this bias by sending in your news.

Short and punchy is the go, rough and ready if it helps -- send to

There is a good chance we have not got everyone who might be interested in receiving this newsletter. If you think we have missed someone, forward this issue to them and suggest they ask to be put on the mailing list by sending an email to the above address.

Northern Snake-necked Turtle -- Chelodina oblonga or Chelodina rugosa?
Nomenclature can be a pernickity affair, with the finer details best left to those well versed in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (the Code), on the understanding that they are doing their best to achieve agreement on the scientific names we apply to species and to achieve some measure of nomenclatural stability. A recent decision of the International Commision of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) has left many researchers somewhat perplexed and other interested parties in government and the community annoyed and confused.

The holotype of Chelodina oblonga is unfortunately a specimen of what we currently call C. rugosa. The Commission, in a decision late last year, did not support an application by Scott Thomson to use its plenary powers give precedence to the prevailing name, Chelodina rugosa, over Chelodina oblonga for the northern snake-necked turtle.

In 1856, Gray recognised Chelodina colliei from south-western Australia as a different species from Chelodina oblonga Gray, 1841 from 'Western Australia'. In those days, Western Australia included what is now the Northern Territory. Later, in 1873, Gray specifically mentioned specimens of C. oblonga from the Port Essington region of what we now regard as the Northern Territory.

It is quite clear that Gray recognised the species from south western Australia (his Chelodina colliei) and the species from northern Australia (his Chelodina oblonga) as distinct.

In 1889, Boulenger synonymized C. colliei with C. oblonga, a view followed for several decades until 1967 when John Goode and Andrew Burbidge reinstated the long-necked turtle of south-western Australia as distinct from the northern snake-necked species. Really unfortunate was their decision to apply the name C. oblonga, not C. colliei, to the south-western Australian species.

This was a serious error. The holotype of C. oblonga, used by Gray, came from northern Australia and is quite obviously, on even cursorial examination, a specimen of what we currently call C. rugosa. It was an unfortunate error because C. oblonga has precedence over C. rugosa, having been applied first to the northern snake-necked turtle.

Under the Code, it is possible to use a junior synonym instead of a senior synonym on the basis of longstanding useage, but the conditions for doing so are quite stringent, and did not apply in this case. So, in 2006, Scott Thomson applied to the ICZN  to use its plenary powers to give precedence to rugosa over oblonga.

This would have the southwestern snake-neck as Chelodina colliei and the prevaling use of Chelodina rugosa for the northern snake-neck sustained, which seemed eminently sensible. The name Chelodina oblonga would be set aside.

Unfortunately, the ICZN did not agree, despite 40 years of continuous use of the name Chelodina rugosa for the northern snake-necked turtle.

We are now faced with the prospect of either continuing to use Chelodina rugosa in the hope that some other acceptable proposition can be put to the ICZN to retain the prevailing useage, or accepting that Chelodina oblonga should now be used for the northern snake-necked turtle.

The issue is complicated by the as yet unpublished work of Erika Alacs which identified two quite divergent clades within C. rugosa. One, in the Northern Territory and far north-eastern Western Australia, almost certainly includes the C. oblonga holotype. The other clade comprises the populations of Queensland and New Guinea (formerly C. siebenrocki) and includes the holotype of C. rugosa. These two clades may come to be described as new species.

If they are -- this is by no means certain -- and we follow the ICZN ruling, we are faced with the Queensland populations of the northern snake-necked turtle originally named Chelodina oblonga by Gray, then C. rugosa by Goode and Burbidge, then C. oblonga by the ICZN ruling, then back to C. rugosa if the Queensland clade warrants recognition as a separate species.

In the words of Oliver Hardy, "Here's another nice mess you've gotten me in to". But who is Ollie talking to? Is it John Goode and Andrew Burbidge for their mistake, or the ICZN for what many would regard as a silly decision, or Scott Thomson for not letting sleeping dogs lie, or is Ollie wrong, and things will be all that more tidy once the dust settles?

New Species of Chelodina (fossil) Described

Adam Yates of the Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory, has described a new species of fossil Chelodina from the late Miocene Alcoota deposits of the Northern Territory.

The new species is based on shell fragments and can be diagnosed by a ventrally reflexed anterior margin of the plastron, a ventrally narrowed cervical scute and strongly dorsally curved margins of the carapace extending from approximately peripheral two to peripheral nine or ten as well as by a unique combination of characters.

Within Chelodina the new species is part of the nominal subgenus Chelodina and within that subgenus it is most closely related to the Chelodina novaeguineae clade. This is not only the oldest record but also the most southerly occurrence of this group.

The article is available as open access, online, from the Peerj journal.

Citation: Yates AM. (2013) A new species of long-necked turtle (Pleurodira: Chelidae: Chelodina) from the late Miocene Alcoota Local Fauna, Northern Territory, Australia. PeerJ 1:e170

Phylogeny and Phylogeography of the Elseya

Erica Todd has just published a paper derived from her PhD thesis on the phylogeny and phylogeography of turtles in the genus Elseya

The genus Elseya has a long vicariant history in Australia,
closely tied to disconnection of fluvial habitat through landform evolution, sea-level rise and ongoing aridification.  

Her analysis paints a more complete picture of Australian freshwater biogeography, including evidence for periodic connectivity with New Guinea, important regional biogeographical barriers, and the location of potential freshwater refugia.  

Congruence with patterns described for terrestrial groups implies a collective response of the Australian fauna to aridification.

For further information, refer to the full article:

Todd, E.V., Blair, D., Georges, A., Lukoschek, V. and Jerry, D.R.  2013.  A biogeographical history and timeline for the evolution of Australian snapping turtles (Elseya: Chelidae) in Australia and New Guinea Journal of Biogeography, 2013 early view. 

New Species Accounts Published

Most recent to appear in the compilation of species accounts by the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group is an article on Chelodina expansa prepared by Deborah Bower and Kate Hodges.

Australia's largest snake-necked turtle, Chelodina expansa (Family Chelidae), occurs throughout the inland rivers and billabongs of eastern and southeastern Australia. The species is cryptic in habit, yet occupies waters heavily exploited and regulated by humans.

Traditionally considered a riverine species, recent studies demonstrate that it is more frequently represented in permanent lakes and billabongs connected to main river channels. Typical of many freshwater turtles, C. expansa displays delayed maturity and high adult survivorship. It is carnivorous and feeds primarily on fast-moving prey such as crustaceans and fish, but will also consume carrion. The reproductive biology of C. expansa sets it apart from most other turtles; in response to low temperatures, embryos enter a diapause, which enable them to survive over winter in nests, resulting in a year-long incubation period.

Chelodina expansa has lower population densities than sympatric turtle species, which may increase its vulnerability to threats. Persistence of C. expansa relies on habitat quality and longitudinal connectivity of freshwater systems in southeastern Australia.

For further information, refer to the original article, which is open access.

Bower, D. and Hodges, K.  2014.  Chelodina expansa Gray 1857 -- Broad-Shelled Turtle, Giant Snake-Necked Turtle. Chelonian Research Monographs 5: doi:10.3854/crm.5.071.expansa.v1.2014

In a second article, Alastair Freeman and John Cann provide an up to date account of the biology of Myuchelys latisternum. The species is a small to medium-sized short-necked turtle endemic to northern and eastern Australia. It inhabits deep to shallow pools and lagoons on permanently flowing waterways, particularly in the upper reaches and side channels of larger rivers. Myuchelys latisternum is chiefly carnivorous, feeding on a variety of aquatic invertebrates, but will also consume fruit, and other vegetation. Nests are laid in fine sand or alluvial substrate on banks close to the water, with clutch size ranging from 9 to 20 eggs and oviposition recorded from September to March. The species is widespread and no significant current conservation threats have been identified.

Freeman, A. and Cann, J. 2014. Myuchelys latisternum (Gray 1867) -- Sawshelled Turtle, Saw-Shell Turtle. Chelonian Research Monographs 5:

New Guinea Turtle has Seen It All!

The island of New Guinea lies in one of the most tectonically active regions in the world and has long provided outstanding opportunity for studies of biogeography. Several chelid turtles, of clear Gondwanal origin, occur in New Guinea; all species except one, the endemic Elseya novaeguineae, are restricted to the lowlands south of the Central Ranges. Elseya novaeguineaeis found throughout New Guinea.    

Arthur Georges, Xiuwen Zhang and Peter Unmack from University of Canberra and Brendan Reid, Mihn Le and Bill McCord from the US used mitochondrial  gene variation among populations of E. novaeguineae throughout its range to test hypotheses of recent extensive dispersal versus more ancient persistence in New Guinea. The distribution of this endemic species is best explained by persistent occupation (or early invasion and dispersal) and subsequent isolation initiated by the dramatic landform changes that were part of the Miocene history of the island of New Guinea, rather than as a response to the contemporary landscape of an exceptionally effective disperser.  

The driving influence on genetic structure appears to have been isolation arising from a combination of: (1) the early uplift of the Central Ranges and establishment of a north-south drainage divide; (2) development of the Langguru Fold Belt; (3) the opening of Cenderawasih Bay; and (4) the deep waters of the Aru Trough and Cenderawasih Bay that come close to the current coastline to maintain isolation of the Birds Head through periods of sea level minima (−135 m).  

The dates of divergence of turtle populations north and south of the ranges predate the telescopic uplift of the central ranges associated with oblique subduction of the Australian Plate beneath the Pacific Plate. Their isolation was probably associated with earlier uplift and drainage isolation driven by the accretion of island terranes to the northern boundary of the Australian craton that occurred earlier than the oblique subduction. The opening of Cenderawasih Bay is too recent (6 Mya) to have initiated the isolation of the Birds Head populations from those of the remainder of New Guinea, although its deep waters will have served to sustain the isolation through successive sea level changes.  
Overall, deep genetic structure of the species complex reflects events and processes that occurred during Miocene, whereas structure within each clade across the New Guinea landscape relates to Pliocene and Pleistocene times.  

For further information, refer to the original article:

Georges, A., Zhang, X., Unmack, P., Reid, B.N., Le, M. and McCord, W.P.  2014.  Contemporary genetic structure of an endemic freshwater turtle reflects Miocene orogenesis of New Guinea. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 111:192-208. 


Secrets of Chelodina expansa Phylogeny Revealed

Kate Hodges has just published a paper arising from her thesis on the phylogeny and phylogeography of the Broad-shelled Turtle, Chelodina expansa.

She examined range-wide mitochondrial  phylogeographical structure  in  this  riverine freshwater turtle to  see if this species exhibits deep  genetic divergence between coastal and  inland hydrological  provinces, as seen in co-distributed freshwater taxa.

Twenty-one haplotypes were  recovered across two mitochondrial haplogroups separated by  approximately 4% nucleotide divergence. The  haplogroups have discrete geographical boundaries but  only  partially support a hypothesis of deep  divergence between coastal and  inland bioregions.

The first  haplogroup comprises populations from  the  inland Murray-Darling
Basin and  from  coastal catchments south of the  Mary River  in  south-east Queensland. The  second haplogroup comprises populations from  coastal catch- ments north of the  Mary River. Cryptic phylogeographical barriers  separating  adjacent coastal populations are congruent with those demonstrated for other freshwater taxa and may  result from  the  combined influences of the  Conondale Range and alluvial deposits at the  mouth of the  Mary River.

The  findings show that  freshwater taxa commonly display genetic differentiation within a biogeographical region where no boundaries have been  recognized, highlighting the  need  to uncover cryptic microbiogeographical regions to aid conservation of  freshwater  biota.

.For further information, refer to the original article.

Hodges, K., Donnellan, S and Georges, A.  2014.  Phylogeography of the Australian freshwater turtle Chelodina expansa reveals complex relationships among inland and coastal bioregions. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, early view.

Bellinger River Emydura Delisted

Following a study conducted by Ricky-J Spencer (UWA), Arthur Georges (UC), Mick Welsh, Brad Shaffer and others, the Bellinger River Emydura was delisted this month under the EPBC Act.

In cases where the taxonomic or conservation status of a species is uncertain, the precautionary principle may be invoked in listing suspected but as yet undescribed taxa as vulnerable or endangered. Such was the case with the Bellinger River Emydura, which was  declared endangered in the Action Plan for Australian Reptiles and vulnerable in the schedules of state and federal conservation acts.

Using mitochondrial sequence variation, it could be shown that the Bellinger River turtle is an unremarkable population of a common and widespread species, Emydura macquarii. There was also evidence that the turtle may have been recently introduced to, or may be a recent invader of, the Bellinger River.

It is thought that it may come to compete with Myuchelys georgesi, an endemic found only in the Bellinger River. The delisting is sensible, in fact, it would be more sensible to list Myuchelys georgesi.

The broader principle here is to couple fundamental research with on-ground action early in an adaptive management context, particularly where taxonomic status of the target species is uncertain and listing is relying on the precautionary principle.

Short-term cost savings of failing to do so may come to be greatly exceeded by longer-term opportunity loss where conservation dollars are limited.

New Childrens' Book Launched

Carla Eisemberg and the UC Piku Team operating out of Papua New Guinea have launched a children's book in Papua New Guinea that holds a strong message about the threat of invasive animals on the biodiversity. The books forms part of a series, written by Carla, that promotes conservation and sustainability in the region.

While not on turtles directly, the book is part of a series produced by the Pig-nosed turtle project in Papua New Guinea.
The book Monty and the Lake Kutubu Invasion tells the story of Chris the Carp who finds his way to the Lake to the great concern of the many native fish species that live in Lake Kutubu.

"This book will help immensely by bringing the issue to the minds of the next generation, at an age when they are receptive to new ideas".  IAE Project Officer, Eric Manasi, added "Protecting Lake Kutubu is particularly important as the lake contains 12 unique fish species found nowhere else in the world."
10,000 copies of the book have been published for distribution within local schools in the region, with its official launch occurring at the Kutubu, Kundu and Digaso Festival in Daga attended by IAE staff Arthur Georges, Jasmyn Lynch, Eric Manasi and Yolarnie Amepou and Carla, who is now at CDU. 

Feedback from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, especially from teachers who will now use the book as learning material.  

"Early white explorers brought with them exotic plants and animals such as Elephant Grass which is now such a problem", said Hilbert Gaibu a teacher from Tanuga Primary. "Mustard tree also. Locals do not know how to stop these species spreading along the Kikori-Moro roadside."

Sam Toro'oi Jack, of Era Kiti Primary School, added -- "The book will really help the children understand about conservation. I enjoyed the story, the puzzles and games. They will open up a child's mind. The book reminds all of us of the responsibility to conserve rare and threatened species, and will be good for environmental studies."

The environmental education and associated research is funded by the PNG petroleum industry. 

A copy of the book can be obtained from Carla in hardcopy, or electronically from the IAE website.  

Chondocranium of Emydura subglobosa

The chondrocranium is a cartilaginous structure that forms around and protects the brain and sensory organs of the head. Through ontogeny, this skeletal structure may become more elaborate, remodeled and reabsorbed or ossified.  Daniel Paluh and Chris Sheil describe for the first time the mature chondrocranium of the pleurodiran turtle, Emydura subglobosa. They cleared and double-stained two hatchling specimens. The orbitotemporal region of E. subglobosa is dramatically different from that of other turtles (e.g. Apalone spinifera, Pelodiscus sinensis, Chelydra serpentina, Macrochelys temminckii, Trachemys scripta, Chrysemys picta, and Eretmochelys imbricata) in that a prominent taenia marginalis spans the space between the planum supraseptale and otic capsules, and the pila antotica (which becomes modified and ossified through ontogeny to form the processus clinoideus) is greatly reduced and essentially absent in hatchling specimens. The morphology seen in E. subglobosa is similar to that of Caretta caretta, particularly as it relates to the taenia marginalis. Variation in the orbitotemporal region is briefly discussed in the context of the taenia marginalis, taenia medialis, pila metoptica, and pila antotica

For further information, go to the original article.
Paluh, D.J. and Sheil, C. A. 2013. Anatomy of the fully formed chondrocranium of Emydura subglobosa (Chelidae): A pleurodiran turtle. Journal of Morphology 274:1-10. 


Turtle Trade Still Florishes

Trade in pig-nosed turtle hatchlings out of Indonesian West Papua continues as evidenced by the most recent seizure of an illegal shipment. Indonesian officials said last month that they rescued more than 8,000 baby pig-nosed turtles hidden in suitcases and thought to be destined for China and Singapore.
According to Zaenal Abidi, a quarantine official, the turtles were discovered in four suitcases at the airport serving the capital Jakarta after arriving from the remote eastern Papua region. 

Abidi said that pig-nosed turtles smuggled through Jakarta are usually sent to Singapore or China, where they are sold as exotic pets and sometimes end up in food markets.
All the turtles would be returned to their natural habitat in Papua.

Pig-nosed turtles are not the only target. 

The island of New Guinea has the highest diversity of chelid turtles in Australasia. Large numbers are harvested from the Indonesian province of Papua to supply the international pet trade. Jessica Lyons, Daniel Natusch and Chris Shepherd of UNSW and Traffic recorded 264 chelid turtles from six species in the trade between December 2010 and March 2011 while gathering information about wildlife trade in the Indonesian province of Papua. Most were juveniles, although a substantial number of large adults were also harvested.  Illegal and unregulated trade coupled with a lack of basic ecological data for these species is thought to have a severe impact on wild populations. Jessica and her team present recommendations for law enforcement and conservation of these species.

For further information, refer to the original article:

Lyons, J.A., Natusch, D.J.D. and Shepherd, C.R. 2013. The harvest of freshwater turtles (Chelidae) from Papua, Indonesia, for the international pet trade. Oryx 47:298-302.


Turtle Distributions -- Update

New turtle records have been added, by Peter Unmack, Matt Young and Kate Hodges, after a recent CRN MDB Futures field trip to the Murray-Darling Basin. Also, we have some new records from the Cape for Myuchelys latisternum.

For further information, interrogate the UC turtle distributional database.

If you have any observational data, please feel free to contribute.

People on the Move

Deborah Bower has moved to Moramanga in Madagascar where she is working for an NGO called Madagasikara Voakajy on critically endangered reptiles and amphibians including Pronks Day Gecko and Golden Mantellas. Sounds like a plum job.

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University of Canberra | ACT 2601 | Canberra | ACT | 2601 | Australia

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