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Helping the Endangered Western Swamp Tortoise

Blog Post - Helping the Endangered Western Swamp Tortoise

The Western Swamp Tortoise is one of Australia’s most endangered reptiles. It is only 15 cm in length and is found in Western Australia. Its name is the clue to its unique behaviour – it can only survive in a particular type of swamp with clay and sand that fill with water for only a short period each year. When the swamp dries up, the tortoises aestivate (a type of hibernation) and re-emerge to feed and breed once winter rains start.

 

Increasing the population of Western Swamp Tortoises presents some challenges. They are slow to reproduce and need specific conditions to survive to adulthood. Their numbers once declined so much they were thought to be extinct and it has been a long slow recovery process. Captive breeding programs have been largely successful, however because of the small numbers of tortoises living in very few local habitats, genetic diversity has proved difficult to achieve.

FNPW has funded research to gather vital information using molecular markers to manage breeding pairs within the captive breeding program and choose optimum release sites.

Once successfully released into nature reserves, the tortoises still face threats. Much of their habitat has been cleared or modified and the wetlands no longer fill with sufficient water over the breeding season. Their habitat may not always sustain enough food for healthy populations that feed on insects, larvae, crustaceans, invertebrates, tadpoles and frogs that live in the swamp.

Like many native animals, Western Swamp Tortoises are prey to feral foxes, cats and rats and vulnerable to bushfires. They also have native predators – crows, goannas and birds of prey. Captive breeding ensures their populations will no longer dramatically decline as they have in the past.

This project used genetic markers to evaluate diversity, an important tool providing data to inform decisions that will maintain or increase the gene pool in each location within the broader Western Swamp Tortoise Recovery Plan. Ongoing monitoring and evaluation will give Western Swamp Tortoises a secure future in their swampy homes.

 

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