The Bellinger River Snapping Turtle (Myuchelys georgesi) is a species of short-necked freshwater turtle in the family Chelidae and is iconic to the Bellinger River, NSW. Previously known as Elseya georgesi, the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle (BRST) was first observed by John Cann in 1971.
The BRST is currently listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 and the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
Bellinger River Snapping turtles should not be confused with the non-native short-necked turtle Emydura macquarii which also inhabits the Bellinger River. Distinctive features on Bellinger River Snapping turtles include a yellow stripe from the angle of the jaws, as well as distinct ‘bar-bells’ on the chin.
2015 Mortality Event
In February 2015, the BRST suffered a significant mortality event with a total of ~430 turtle deaths recorded (however, numbers are suggested to be much higher). It is believed that many of the dead turtles may have been washed away in a major flood event which occurred around the time of the mortality event. The infected turtles suffered blindness, internal organ necrosis and developed sudden inflammatory lesions. Affected turtles displayed symptoms of malnourishment and lethargy.
Since the mortality event a disease investigation has identified a virus (Bellinger River Virus or BRV), previously not known to science, as the agent most likely to be responsible.
The current Bellinger River Turtle population is estimated to be between 200 and 300 individuals and predominantly juveniles.
In 2005 the population was estimated between 3100-5900 individuals. After abnormal rainfall conditions and historically low river levels the population declined and in early 2015 (prior to the mortality event) was estimated between 1,600 – 4500 individuals.
Endemic to the Bellinger River
The BRST is endemic to this area and occupies about 55 km stretch of the Bellinger River.
Photo: Distribution of Bellinger River Snapping Turtle
Photo credit: Ian Roth- NSW, Department of Primary Industries
The Bellinger River Snapping turtle nests between October and December and lays one clutch of 10-25 eggs. Eggs are laid in excavations on the river banks. Hatchlings appear after approximately 72 days in the nests and reach sexual maturity at 8 years for females and 5-6 years for males. Bellinger River turtles prefer deep waterholes with rocky substrate and bedrock where they can camouflage. These turtles obtain a high proportion of their diet from benthic macro-invertebrate communities. As juveniles, they have strong leniencies towards carnivorous diets, while as adults they are omnivorous, commonly consuming caddisfly larvae, pyralidae larvae (moth larvae), ribbon weed and algae.
The main threats to this species include poor water quality, predation by foxes, and the past disease outbreak.
Examples of conservation activities currently underway to aid the recovery of the BRST include:
- Captive breeding program in Taronga Zoo Sydney and addition of a second juvenile population at Symbio Wildlife Park (Sept 2017)
- Ongoing surveys at the river to determine population size and distribution, monitoring of extant population by OEH
- Local BRST Stakeholder’s group and involvement in Bellingen Landcare Bellinger River program
- Development of an expert reference group for the BRST
- Status Review, Disease Risk Analysis and Conservation Action Plan for the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle (Myuchelys georgesi) developed December 2016
- PhD student from Western Sydney University undertaking studies on BRST
Bellingen Riverwatch enables access to consistent, scientifically rigorous water quality data to scientist working for the recovery of this species. Data aids in decision making, guides research, informs policy, as well as raising awareness and improving community understanding about the environment and threatened species.