A Wetland Habitat For Our Amazing Turtles

A close-up shot of an oblong turtle with an inset of one swimming in the wetlands

Turtles are remarkable and resilient creatures that inhabit our wonderous wetland worlds. They are widely celebrated in both popular culture and folklore as totems of balance, beauty and prosperity. In Aboriginal culture too, turtles are seen as symbols of longevity, endurance, and the continuation of life (especially in the face of great hardship and struggle).

We have much to learn from our endearing turtles. However, the avenues are limited as turtles are also inherently shy creatures. They seldom venture out, staying confined to the comfort of their wetland habitat and sanctuary for long stretches of time. And their rituals of mating, nesting, feeding and living, remain largely undocumented and mysterious.

Hidden in the grassy underbrush and marshy swamps, they thrive. Feeding on bugs, snails, worms, fish, crustaceans, plants and animals, scavenging and flourishing, they play a crucial role in the wetland ecosystem. They are vital indicators of wetland health. This is why their ever-dwindling numbers, impacted habitats and disrupted food-webs demand our most serious consideration.

 

Come, Meet Our Oblong Turtle

The oblong turtle or, the long-necked turtle, is a native species that is only found in this part of the world – in a small pocket at the southwestern tip of the state of Western Australia. And we are fortunate for their presence here!

The oblong turtles owe their name to the oblong shape of their carapace (upper shell) and snake-like long neck. Dark brown or muddy black in colour, these turtles are found in waterways across Perth and throughout the south-west. They occur in permanent and seasonal freshwater habitats, including rivers, swamps, lakes, damp lands, and natural as well as artificial wetlands.

Adult turtles can grow large and measure about 30-50cms from the tip of their tails to the end of their beaks. The young hatchlings are tiny as they begin their journey though, with a carapace merely the size of a 20-cent coin!

A long neck turtle walking through the wetlands
Image by Sharon Mcarthur

The Turtle Nesting Period is On!

September to January is a special season indeed. At this time of year, you can witness turtles leaving their watery homes in search of suitable nesting sites. They are known to travel up to a kilometre in search of the perfect site with soft sandy soils where they can lay their leathery eggs.

Unfortunately, a turtle out of water is a turtle at risk! Turtles get run-over by cars as they cross busy roads and pavements, oftentimes distracted by loud sounds and noise from moving traffic. Turtles are also exposed to birds and other predators that prey on them as they find their way. Dehydration and tiredness from the long journey and the added confusion of a changed or disturbed site can cause the turtle to feel lost and ultimately perish from fatigue.

If you are lucky to site a turtle that is on its way, help it cross the road by halting incoming traffic till it crosses. If this is too risky, you could lift it across the road (make sure that you take it in the direction it is headed and not back!) and ensure that there are no other threats around. If you have the time, you could also follow the turtle (at a safe distance) to and from the nesting site. Protecting our exposed and vulnerable turtles can go a long way in ensuring the survival of the species.

 

Threats to The Oblong Turtle

We lose a number of turtles to road accidents each year. In fact, in the period leading from September to January when turtles nest, and from June to July when hatchlings make their way back home to the wetlands, our turtles are at their most vulnerable.

A baby oblong turtle peeks above the water surface to breathe.Feral animals including birds of prey, cats, dogs and foxes are a significant threat to our oblong turtles. Feral animals are known to attack the turtles as well as their nests, feeding on eggs. Poaching and removing turtles from their wild habitat to keep as domestic pets is also a major threat. Although catching and keeping turtles as pets is illegal and punishable by law, it still happens.

And finally, it is the increasing urban sprawl, especially in the vicinity of the wetlands, that is leading to fewer and more disjointed habitats for our turtles. The compromised water quality and enhanced pollution levels are impacting their numbers, even as safe and suitable habitats become threateningly scarce.

 

Turtles on Your Property?

If your home happens to be popular with the turtles and you see a great number on your property, chances are that you are on a nesting site! Turtles are known to follow the same pattern year-on-year and are likely to end up in the same favourite spot for nesting. If you are a turtle buff, this can be an incredible opportunity for you to witness something magical!

Allow the turtle to nest and observe at a safe distance. Ensure that your pets are on a leash and away from the turtle. Make sure that there are no other threats that could harm the turtle. The female turtle will take anywhere between 15-30 mins to lay her leathery eggs, using her plastron (lower shell) and legs to dig and later cover-up the hole.

The turtle will be tired from her strenuous journey and vigorous nesting activity. If you find her at risk, you could help her get back to the wetlands safely, but not unless you are sure that’s the direction she is headed in. Keep the nest undisturbed while the mum is away. Turtle hatchlings will emerge after a period of incubation, and you can help them get back to the water too.

Here are some handy instructions if you are required to move a nesting site or handle a turtle anytime. Please remember that our turtles are wild creatures, and it is not encouraged to interfere with their movement unless they are at risk. That is please do not pick up hatchlings or adults unless absolutely necessary!

An illustration showing the right way to hold a long neck turtle.

Handling a Turtle: When handling a turtle prepare for them to resist and squirm strongly. They do not bite; however, they are known to scratch and struggle. Take care to keep a strong hold and not to drop them when this happens. Wrapping a small damp towel around the turtle can help you get a good grip. Always use both your hands and keep the turtle away from your own body.

Moving a Nest: If you are required to move a nest for any reason, or if you come across a compromised nest and want to help relocate it, here is what you do: Make sure you dig around with gentle hands and get all the eggs in the nest. Mark the position the eggs were in exactly and ensure you put them into the relocated site as they were found. The fresh hole you dig should be at the same depth and with similar conditions of dampness or dryness. Remember turtle eggs that are rotated will not hatch! If the temperatures are too cold too, the eggs won’t hatch!

 

Facts You May Not Know About Our Turtles

Here are some quick oblong turtle facts that may surprise and wow you!

  1. Freshwater turtles, such as our oblong turtles, can drop their body temperature, slow their pulse rate and use their stored body fat in place of fresh food to survive severe hot and dry conditions. This ability, known as aestivation, is the reason our hardy turtles can cope with the roughest Western Australian weather.
  2. Turtles are the only creatures with an exterior shell that is all bone and attached to their spine. The turtle shell is living material, much like our own fingernails. And they can sense pain, touch and temperature through it!
  3. It is a common misconception that our oblong turtles can protect themselves by retracting into their shells. Oblong turtles cannot retract into their shell!
  4. Our oblong turtles can live a long life of over 60 years when the conditions are right. They need to live long because they have very low recruitment rates (few surviving offsprings). In fact, on average only 1% of turtle eggs go on to hatch and survive until adulthood.
  5. Turtles are known to feed on the dead and decaying organic matter and debris. Turtles help keep the waterways clean and aid in wetland function.

 

Help Us Turtle Watch!

Sighting a turtle is a beautiful and moving experience! Be sure to share your lucky sighting at climatewatch.org.au. You can log your sighting using their app. Or call us at The Wetlands Centre Cockburn at our Turtle Watch Helpline.

Keeping a lookout on the migration patterns and movements of our native turtles helps us identify important habitats and nesting grounds. It also helps us create safer homes for these amazing wetland creatures!

7 Things You Should Know About Our Wetlands

A beautiful scene of wetlands at sunset

Our stunning wetlands are a remarkable feature of the Australian landscape. From rivers that crisscross our cities and drain into surrounding seas, to the vast floodplains of central Australia that only see water every few years, these breathtaking natural and artificial wetlands capture our imagination.

The amazing diversity of lakes, mudflats and billabongs, marshes, swamps and fens and coral reefs, mangroves and peatlands – our wetlands come in all shapes and sizes. Even amidst our urban sprawl, we have manmade lakes, ponds and canals, together with some serene natural wetlands that serve as centres of recreation for us and refuge for our wildlife.

We often pass by them wondering at their natural beauty and abundance. The diverse wildlife and plant-life they support. Their scenic beauty. The interlinkages and connections. And the cycles and seasons that bring out their unique character. Yet their many other (important) functions go largely unnoticed by us.

It is hard to imagine Australia without its beautiful wetlands. They are special places serving as storehouses of life-giving water. And, they play a key role beyond sustenance, water conservation and climate control.

 

1. Wetlands are “Nature’s Kidneys”

Wetlands have been likened to nature’s kidneys owing to their deep cleansing effect on our waterways. They are essential for sustaining healthy waterways on which communities throughout Australia depend.

Much like the kidneys that filter and extract waste and balance the hormones in the human body, the wetlands trap and filter the nutrients, sediments and pollutants, cleaning the water and recharging the underground aquifers. By absorbing pollutants, wetlands improve the quality of water and the surrounding bushland.

 

2. Wetlands and the Impact on Climate Change

Wetlands have the unique ability to capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus slowing the impacts of climate change. Coastal wetlands are known to store large quantities of ‘blue carbon’ (the carbon in coastal ecosystems is known as blue carbon).

The flourishing vegetation is responsible for consuming carbon dioxide. Some of the used-up carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere, but most of it remains trapped around the roots, sediments and in the marshy ground.

Statistics show us that although the wetlands cover only 5 – 8% of the Earth’s land surface, they hold anywhere up to 30% of the total store of carbon on the planet.

 

3. Wetlands Act as Storm Buffers

Wetlands perform a crucial function as storm buffers – including inland flood control and coastal storm buffers. The thriving foliage – seagrasses, reefs, rushes, reeds, bushes and more – all protect against the destructive action of flood-water and dampen their impact.

Wetlands protect coastal communities from extreme events, such as typhoons, cyclones and hurricanes. They protect our shores from corrosive wave action.

 

4. Wetlands Serve as Habitats for Biodiversity

Wetlands are vital habitats for native species such as the oblong turtles and black swans, as well as a horde of international migratory birds such as greenshanks, red-necked stints and sharp-tailed sandpipers. They provide much-needed refuge for a number of migratory shorebird and seabird species, serving as important feeding and resting habitats during spring and summer months. Some endangered species such as Carnaby’s cockatoo and the peregrine falcon rely on the wetlands for their food and water.

Wetlands support a unique ecosystem. And some of the plant and animal varieties are curiously distinct, having evolved specifically to survive the changing water and salinity conditions.

 

5. Artificial Wetlands and Recreation

Constructed wetlands or manmade wetlands, that are designed to mimic our natural wetlands are often found in urban areas. They can serve the same function as our natural wetlands – of supporting wildlife and creating booming ecosystems and habitats, although they often lack the amazing biodiversity of natural wetlands.

Artificial wetlands are popular destinations for recreation and ecotourism, they also provide us with an opportunity of ‘experiencing nature’ right in the heart of our own cities and suburbs.

 

6. Water Conservation and Sustenance

The wetlands ecosystem teaches us a great deal about water and water conservation. The underground aquifers, which are vast, natural, water-storage reservoirs in the wetlands ecosystem, help replenish the groundwater. While the wetlands themselves act as filters, cleaning and restoring our waterways. The wetlands are often the surface expressions of these aquifers.

All Australians rely on water to sustain life. And water plays a large part in our lives. Whether it’s water for our households, schools, industries or communities, wetlands play an indispensable role and their conservation should be a top priority.

 

7. Wetlands Need Our Support

Threats to wetlands continue as many of them are being filled, drained and replaced with agricultural fields, roadways and urban developments. Rural and urban encroachment is perhaps the biggest threat. Leaving our animal and bird populations homeless, our waterways exposed and compromised, and our environment permanently degraded.

The wetlands need our support today. From generating public awareness to community involvement in their protection and rehabilitation.

We encourage you to visit us – The Wetlands Centre at Bibra Lake – or your nearest wetlands, to learn about our community outreach and how local communities can participate in and benefit from the wetlands.