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06 17/06/2013

Baby turtle gives species hope

A rare baby turtle has hatched at Chester Zoo. It is first spiny turtle to ever be bred in the UK.

Turtle hatching - Chester Zoo

This incredible image was captured by Chester Zoo keeper Matt Cook

Spiny turtles, which are native to southeast Asia and Indonesia, are faced with extinction in the wild because of habitat loss, hunting and the international pet trade.

But the new arrival in Chester has given conservationists fresh hope in the fight to haul the species back from the brink.

"There have only ever been a handful of successful breeding efforts documented, anywhere in the world, so we’re absolutely ecstatic with our new arrival - it’s breaking new ground for us,” said Chester Zoo keeper Ruth Smith.

“Breeding these rare turtles here allows us to study and learn about their reproductive ecology and what makes these beautiful, yet complex, animals tick. And it’s that kind of information which can be invaluable for conservation action in the wild.

“The intensive care and delicate work we’ve put into getting this turtle to hatch and all the information, skills and things that we’ve learnt in doing so are vital tools we can now apply in the field. We’ll now share this expertise and really maximise our chances of being able to better protect and help the recovery of not only this, but other similar species, in the wild.”

Spiny turtle

Image © Reuters/PA

The youngsters’ parents were rescued and given to Chester Zoo after an illegal haul was confiscated by wildlife authorities in Hong Kong in late 2000.

Keeper Isolde McGeorge said:

“I arranged for the turtles to come to Chester Zoo in early 2001. They were all very, very sick and, at the time, we were really worried we were going to lose them.

“Twelve years later, to have now reached this momentous point where we’ve actually managed to breed them is incredibly satisfying and one of the greatest success stories of my time working here. The challenge now though is to replicate this and help make sure the future of the species is better safeguarded.”

The diminutive spiny turtle (Latin name Heosemys spinosa), which grows to no more than 22cm (220mm) in length, is classed as endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of the world’s most threatened species.

Their natural range is through southern Burma, southern Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo, several Indonesian islands and the Philippines. They live in swamps and wet forests.

But human activity is weakening the species' grip in the wild.

And prior to the new spiny turtle hatching in Chester, only a handful of successful captive breeding efforts have ever been recorded worldwide.

For those reasons, the new baby is being given very special care.

Miss Smith added:

"When a species is as endangered as the spiny turtle, each individual is so, so important. We’re giving our little fellow around the clock attention as everything we’re learning could be crucial if we’re going to try and prevent their slide towards extinction.”

We have also achieved breeding successes with several other threatened Asian turtle species, including the black marsh turtle, golden coin box turtle and annam leaf turtle.

 

Fast Facts

• Latin name: Heosemys spinosa
• The unique turtles are also known as sunburst turtles, spiny terrapins and ‘cog-wheel’ turtles given its sharp pointed, spiky-edged shell
• The spikes creating the effect of a walking pin cushion. It is thought that this spiny ‘armour’ acts as a deterrent to predators, such as snakes
• Their colouration helps camouflage the turtle amongst the leaf litter of its forest floor habitat
• The spiny turtle ranges throughout Southeast Asia, from Thailand and possibly southern Myanmar southward through Malaysia to Sumatra, Borneo and Natuna, numerous small Indonesian Islands and the Philippines
• They live in shallow, wooded mountain streams, but spend considerable time on land foraging or burrowing amongst the leaf litter of the forest floor
• Wild populations are thought to be plummeting, particularly in Indonesia, where they are considered critically endangered
• It is in grave danger of extinction due to over-collection from the wild for the Asian food market and international pet trade, as well as being threatened by the destruction of its habitat
• There have only ever been a handful of successful captive breeding efforts of the spiny turtle

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