The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has included the Mary River turtle on its Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (Edge) list for reptiles, sparking a global media frenzy around one of the strangest creatures humans have ever laid eyes on.
The freshwater turtle is distinctive to the river it’s named after in the south-east of Queensland, diverging from all other living creatures 40 million years ago. For context, that’s more than 30 million years before humans split from chimpanzees, which explains some of the unique features that have made them a viral sensation since hitting the headlines thanks to the ZSL.
‘The Punk Turtle’
The turtle’s green hair has earned the Mary River turtle the nickname ‘the punk turtle’, looking like some cross between a reptile, troll doll and Johnny Rotten in his heyday. Of course, the hair isn’t actually hair, but rather long strands of algae that resemble the fur that covers Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street.
And the weirdness doesn’t end there. Like many other types of turtle, this species uses bimodal respiration, meaning they can absorb oxygen through their cloaca—a polite way of saying it can breathe through its nether regions. These genital gills mean that Mary River turtles can remain underwater for three whole days without needing to come up to the surface for a gasp, although they do often stick their heads above water for a breather the normal way.
Add to the equation a peculiar pig nose, an oversized shell, a long tail on males, webbed feet with spiky claws, and extremely long barbels (finger-like fleshy structures dangling under the mouth) and you’ve got yourself one of Australia’s most unique animals.
This incredible creature is endemic to the Mary River on the Sunshine Coast in south-east Queensland, but their very existence has been threatened by the building of dams and the harvesting of eggs. Mary River turtles were popular pets in the 1960s and 70s because of their remarkable appearance, degrading the population.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature added the Mary River turtle to its Red List of endangered animals in 1970, but it took until 1994 for it to be formally described as a species. Some conservation programmes have been set up to protect it in recent decades, including a breeding program that re-introduced a small group back into the wild a decade ago.
The ZSL Edge list ranked the Mary River turtle at equal 29th spot alongside its Australian cousin the Bell’s saw-shelled turtle and South America’s Chaco side-necked turtle, rating conservation efforts to protect it only at medium. Unfortunately, the green-haired turtle isn’t covered by the federal government’s threatened species strategy, which only accounts for a handful of mammals, birds and plants but no reptiles.
“Reptiles often receive the short end of the stick in conservation terms, compared with the likes of birds and mammals,” said co-ordinator of ZSL Edge Reptiles, Rikki Gumbs.
“However, the Edge reptiles list highlights just how unique, vulnerable and amazing these creatures really are.
“Many Edge reptiles are the sole survivors of ancient lineages, whose branches of the tree of life stretch back to the age of the dinosaurs. If we lose these species there will be nothing like them left on Earth.”
Where to see Mary River turtles
Want to spot one of these punk turtles? Rather than trying to find one of them in the wild on the Sunshine Coast, head to a zoo nearby—Steve Irwin’s iconic Australia Zoo, located an hour’s drive north of Brisbane, bred eight hatchlings in 2004 to help conserve the species. You’ll also see Mary River turtles at Taronga Zoo in Sydney.