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Australia Baby turtles missing at Hyde Park as efforts increase to save them from extinction

03:57  16 january  2022
03:57  16 january  2022 Source:   abc.net.au

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The mortality rate of baby turtles at one of Perth's most loved parks has triggered a fresh attempt to solve a mystery that has perplexed some of WA's most experienced environmental scientists for more than a decade.

Despite an abundance of fertile females, no juveniles have joined the 300-odd strong colony of native turtles at Hyde Park in more than 15 years — and nobody seems to know why.

"It's like going into a town and there's plenty of pregnant ladies, but no babies in prams," said Associate Professor Roberta Bencini, from the University of Western Australia's School of Agriculture and Environment.

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Several studies over the years failed to explain why the turtle hatchlings don't survive, but it's hoped a new four-year project closely monitoring their nests will shed some light on the cause.

The southwestern snake-necked turtle, also known as the oblong turtle, is endemic to southern WA.

Public asked to spot turtles

Signs have been plastered around the inner city park asking people to report sightings of turtles outside of the water.

"The response from the public has been fantastic," Ms Bencini said.

"We've had people calling every time that they see a turtle leaving the water or looking to build a nest.

"We have been able to identify and protect 23 nests in this breeding season."

When a call comes through, Bangladesh PhD student Aliza Khatun springs into action.

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She visits the lake as soon as she can to find the nest and protect it from disturbance using a plastic mesh.

"I will keep an eye on the nest for the whole incubation period until September ... almost daily I'll check that nest," Ms Khatun said.

"Before the hatching period, I'll move that mesh and will put in a barrier and fences to protect the hatchlings.

"When the hatchlings come out, I will measure them and will test their fitness performance and release them safely into the water."

It's hoped Ms Khatun's hawk-eyed monitoring of the nests will lead to the first juvenile turtles being successfully integrated into the colony in years.

"The whole project is about waiting for turtles to nest, protecting the nests and then looking at the hatchlings," Ms Bencini said.

"If they're fit, if they're healthy, [we will] release them near the water so that they can go back into the population."

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Humans could spook turtles

The previous studies offered several explanations for why there were no young turtles, but none were conclusive.

"We were doing ultrasound scans of the turtles, they had plenty of eggs, so they were fertile," Ms Bencini said.

"So we think that between being laid in the nest and getting to the water, something happens."

Predating foxes have proven to be a problem at other lakes in southern WA where the turtles are found.

In Bibra Lake, in Perth's southern suburbs, the proximity of nests to a busy road have seen many pregnant turtles squashed by cars.

Just one nest at Hyde Park was predated upon in the past year — but with no reported sightings of foxes in the area, Ms Khatun believed that was likely a cat.

Human intervention was one possible explanation.

"Some people see a turtle out of the water and of course, their instinct is 'what's it doing here' and they put it back in the water," Ms Bencini said.

"The poor turtle is trying to lay the eggs instead and instead she gets put back in, and she has to start all over again."'

Ms Khatun suggests the presence of curious humans and dogs could spook the turtles from successfully laying eggs at all.

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"I'm guessing that the surrounding environment may be the main factor for not having the baby turtles," she said.

"They have no parental care at all.

"They just lay the eggs, fill the hole with soil and leave forever."

Ms Khatun had already managed to release 27 hatchlings into the lake from four nests found around the park, but it was too early to tell if they had survived.

While the south-western snake-necked turtles were not threatened or endangered, the experts believed the population was in trouble.

"The fact that there's a whole generation that's gone missing, or maybe many generations that have gone missing ... the population is likely to decline," Ms Bencini said.

Council committed to solution

The City of Vincent has funded studies into the Hyde Park turtle colony since 2015.

Mayor Emma Cole said it was a slow but useful exercise to understand how to best support the Hyde Park turtle colony.

"We love having this oblong turtle population here in the middle of inner city Perth," she said.

"We just want this home to continue for them and we'd love to know that they are a sustainable population and that they have a future here at Hyde Park."

The City has spent $28,000 supporting Ms Khatun's research.


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