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Saving Murray River turtles from extinction - FNPW Project update

Blog Post - Saving Murray River turtles from extinction - FNPW Project update

Saving Murray River turtles from extinction - this project unites a world- class research team with diverse industry partners, indigenous groups, and non-government organisations from three states to address a problem of national significance. 

FNPW is contributing to funding the largest river study of turtles in Australia. Saving the Murray River turtles is a complex challenge, with feral predators, climate change and salinity changes in a fragile ecosystem posing a real threat to turtle survival.

This is the first river-wide study of turtles, achieved by combining cutting-edge genetic and ecological techniques with a citizen science program.

Murray River turtles were listed as threatened in Victoria and their decline is now obvious, with 93% of nests on the Murray River destroyed by foxes. As a result, turtles in the Murray River are at risk of extinction, with more than 70 per cent less turtles than 40 years ago.

Headed by Zoologist Dr Ricky Spencer and the University of Western Sydney, this ongoing project aims to assess turtle numbers and develop a comprehensive management plan to ensure these three species not only survive, but thrive. Now at the halfway point, funding is vital to the success of the turtle project.

Dr Spencer says this study is crucial at a time when action must be taken to protect these turtles from unrecoverable decline.

“Turtles are of major importance in river ecosystems and they are declining at an alarming rate in the Murray-Darling. Decline or loss of abundant scavengers, such as turtles, will have serious effects on the ecosystem, further impacting water quality, biological diversity and general river health. Our current research will make sure we have the right plans in place to manage these impacts and save these ancient creatures” he said.

This unique study uses genetic analysis, ecological techniques, local indigenous knowledge and a citizen science project to obtain the most comprehensive data possible. Freshwater turtles are the second largest vertebrates in the Murray River and are critical to the delicate balance of this stressed ecosystem. Turtles eat vast amounts of algae and water plants and scavenge on dead fish, maintaining a healthy aquatic environment for the many other birds, fish, animals and plants that rely on the Murray for their survival.

Evidence of problems with turtle health or population profile points to wider issues that may be affecting many other species of flora and fauna, and interrupting the delicate ecological balance between all the components of the River Murray system. Protecting turtle nesting sites and controlling foxes to reduce predation is critical to give the turtles a chance to build up a strong population again.

Your can help us continue funding this important project and ensure the ongoing survival of the Murray River freshwater turtles

This project has already gained considerable insight into the best way to effectively restore and conserve turtle habitat. But it needs ongoing funding to ensure the most effective strategies are adopted to give the Murray River turtles the very best chance at survival.

It is human intervention that has caused this dramatic decline in turtles on the Murray. Let’s make sure human intervention will also save them.

Together, we can give them a future. Please donate today.

Other ways you can help…become a Citizen Scientist


TurtleSAT is a citizen science project that contributes vital data to the Murray River Turtle project. Communities can map freshwater turtle sightings across the country on the TurtleSAT website or mobile app. FNPW and our project partners, are calling on communities along the Murray to join the study.

"No one knows the Murray better than the people in the river townships. Their local knowledge will be invaluable to the project. We want community members to join locally managed field expeditions to gather crucial information on turtle numbers, their breeding and behaviour," says Ian Darbyshire, CEO Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife.

The Murray River project is another example of the growing importance of citizen science in turtle research.

The numbers of Australia's freshwater turtles are in steep decline and the project needs your help. It is a chance for you to learn to identify turtle species, record freshwater turtle and nesting sites and contribute photos.

To ensure the survival of freshwater turtles, this project needs evidence:

  • Where do turtles live?
  • Where do they breed?
  • Are there important breeding 'hotspots'?
  • What are the major causes of turtle decline?
  • Do the causes of decline differ throughout Australia?
  • How far do they disperse?
  • Are there important 'source' populations that help to populate other areas?

You can help answer these questions by participating. Visit www.turtlesat.org.au to get started.

Download the River Murray Turtle Protection Manual - South Australian experiments in turtle habitat protection. 

The Murray River is home to three freshwater turtle species:

Murray short-necked turtle

Also known as the Macquarie turtle or Murray River turtle, this freshwater turtle lives only in the Murray-Darling River system in south-eastern Australia. It is very common in open water and grows to about 30cm in length. As the name suggests, the Murray short-necked turtle has a short neck in comparison to other turtles. You can tell the male from the female by the tail length - the male has a much fatter and longer tail than the female.

You will sometimes see short-necked turtles on logs in the water, but they usually only come out of the water to nest. The female lays her eggs in a burrow close to the water. She can lay up to 30 eggs which take 6 to 8 weeks to hatch.

Short-necked turtles eat molluscs, crustaceans and fruits and water plants. They also eat a large amount of dead animals they find in the water such as fish. Adult turtles have few predators but eggs, hatchlings and nesting females are vulnerable to goannas, rats, foxes, birds, cats and wild pigs.


Eastern long-necked turtle

The Eastern long-necked or snake-necked, turtle lives in slow moving water like rivers, dams and wetlands. It is the most widespread turtle in south-eastern Australia and the smallest of the Murray River turtles. It eats mostly fish, tadpoles, frogs and crayfish, tearing them apart with its strong front claws.

Long-necked turtles move about from one body of water to another so are unfortunately often killed on roads. They are carnivores and will also eat dead animals in the water.

The female lays her eggs in November and December in a nest usually close to the water. The eggs hatch after 2 to 3 months and the hatchlings have very distinct orange or red spots on their undersides. They are the only Murray turtle species born with these markings, which disappear as they mature.

Broad-shelled turtle

The broad-shelled turtle is the largest of the three species but also the least common turtle species that inhabit the River Murray and its backwaters, and is considered culturally significant to Aboriginal people. The above photo is of a an albino broad shell turtle from the Murray River. Wild caught variations are exceedingly rare. This turtle is 8-10 years old.

It lives in permanently deep water and has the longest neck of any turtle in the world. They feed mostly on fast swimming prey like fish and shrimp, but like the other turtles, they will also eat dead animals.

Females are larger than the males, reaching 5 kg while the males are a bit less than 4 kg. Broad-shelled turtles nest in autumn, after the eggs of the other turtle species have all hatched. Their eggs are quite large and they can sometimes take up to a year to hatch. The females choose a nest site away from the water, up to 500 m away.

Saving Murray River turtles from extinction Project Background

FNPW works in partnerships that's what we do. We partner with scientists, community and indigenous groups, individuals and government agencies making a difference in the field, right across the country. We are proud to be working with the following organisations.

Saving Murray River turtles from extinction - Project Partner Organisations:

  • Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife
  • University of Western Sydney
  • Winton Wetlands Committee of Management Incorporated
  • Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment
  • Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation
  • North Central Catchment Management Authority
  • Save Lake Bonney Group Inc.
  • Turtles Australia 
  • Barapa Cultural Team

Scientists and Researchers involved:

  • Dr Ricky-John Spencer
  • Prof Michael B Thompson
  • Prof Arthur Georges
  • Dr Bruce C Chessman
  • Mr Nicholas Clemann
If you would like to support this project  -  please make an online donation today!



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