Saving Australia's Turtles

La Trobe University researcher Dr James Van Dyke is trailblazing a path to save the river turtles of south-eastern Australia.

Turtles are one of the most threatened species on earth. From the Amazon to Australia, turtle populations are diminishing. The freshwater turtle population of the Murray-Darling Basin has fallen significantly from the 1980s and the three River Murray species are becoming increasingly vulnerable.

The spiralling decline in turtles has caught the attention of ‘The Turtle Guy’, otherwise known as Dr James Van Dyke, a biologist with the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science. Since 2015 Dr Van Dyke has been traversing the Murray River system, studying the turtle species who call the area home.

According to Dr Van Dyke, the turtle populations along the Murray River are not faring well. ‘While there are turtles to be found, most of them are older and there are few juveniles. Without the next generation of turtles coming through the populations will rapidly decline and potentially die out.”`

“Foxes and pigs, who have become highly proficient at searching for eggs in turtle nests, are the biggest problem. The journey from egg, to hatchling to juvenile is fraught with danger.”

But there is hope on the horizon. Dr Van Dyke is a recent recipient of a Federal Citizen Science Grant worth $499,729. The grant will fund a three-year project aimed at involving communities, from Brisbane to Adelaide and beyond, in helping to conserve their local turtle populations.

Community volunteers will be trained in how to find and protect turtle nests. As well as how to dig artificial nests with chicken eggs.

“We will monitor the eradication of artificial nests and use that to estimate the rate of turtle nest destruction by foxes and pigs,” says Dr Van Dyke

The program aims to identify hotspots that require further conservation action. The program is seeking assistance from “citizen scientists” who can report turtle sightings using the app (or website) TurtleSAT. Community volunteers can also help by building the artificial nests with chicken eggs and monitor any predatory interference.

This community action project is part of a larger turtle conservation scheme managed by Dr Van Dyke.

If you’d like to learn more about conserving Australia’s freshwater turtles and become a citizen scientist please visit TurtleSAT.

This is joint project between James Van Dyke of La Trobe University, Western Sydney University and the University of New England.