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The Green-Haired Mary River Turtle

The Mary River turtle lives exclusively in the waters of the Mary River in south-east Queensland, Australia. Despite being one of Australia’s largest freshwater turtles, it gained scientific identification and classification less than thirty years ago. The Mary River turtle managed to avoid detection for so long possibly due to its extraordinary respiratory system that allows it to breath underwater, therefore seldom requiring to emerge out of the water for air. The turtle performs this unusual feat by breathing through its cloaca, an orifice used by reptiles for excretion and mating.

Mary River Turtle

Photo: Chris Van Wyk

One of the most distinctive feature of the Mary River turtle is its shock of green hair and whiskers. These are nothing but sprouts of algae that grow over its head and shell.

The Mary River turtle is the only species in its genus, representing a very old lineage of turtles that has all but disappeared from the evolutionary history of Australia. It is believed to have diverged from all other living species around 40 million years ago. In comparison, humans split from chimpanzees and bonobos, less than 10 million years ago.

During the 1960s and 70s, hatchlings of the Mary River turtle was sold in pet shops around Victoria and were known as “penny turtle” or “pet shop turtle”. It was through these specimens that the species came to the attention of Sydney turtle researcher John Cann, whose family ran a public snake and lizard exhibition every weekend at La Perouse for more than half a century. It took John more than 20 years to trace the source of the baby turtles that were being sold at Victorian pet shops. After many unsuccessful attempts he located the source on the Mary River.

Unfortunately, the Mary River turtle is now an endangered species. The collection of eggs for the pet trade had driven the decline in the species. Additionally, the turtle takes an exceptionally long time to reach sexual maturity, with individuals not breeding before the age of 25. Population lost through egg and hatchling harvest or death by natural causes is not easily recovered. The Mary River turtle is Australia's second-most endangered freshwater turtle species, after the western swamp turtle (Pseudemydura umbrina) of Western Australia.

Mary River Turtle

Photo: Chris Van Wyk

Mary River Turtle

Photo: robdowner/Shutterstock.com

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