Conservation Spotlight: Turtle Talk

A member of the Zoo's herpetology team holds a tiny Roti Island snake-necked turtle hatchling in their palm. The ultimate objective of the Zoo's breeding program for this critically endangered turtle – which is extinct in the wild – is to repopulate native habitats in Indonesia. Photo by Ian Recchio.

BY Ian Recchio, Curator of Amphibians, Reptiles, and Fish

The L.A. Zoo’s herpetology department has bred the critically endangered Roti Island snake-necked turtle (Chelodina mccordi) several times over the years. Indeed, the Zoo has been a solid and consistent contributor to the Chelodia mccordi Species Survival Plan (SSP). What changed in the last decade is that, in 2015, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Indonesia, the Bronx Zoo, and the SSP launched a repatriation project for this rare species.

The tiny island of Roti (or Rote) southwest of Timor in Indonesia was subject to intensive collection of this odd-looking turtle for many years. This was the overwhelming contributing factor that led to its functional extinction in the wild. The island does have other issues, such as habitat degradation (poorly planned agricultural practices), rising sea level due to climate change, and introduced predators. But, overall, many of the swamps, lakes, and ponds that the turtle lived in are in relatively good shape.

Reintroduction, though, requires much more than suitable habitats. This work has involved many steps and agreements with regional and local Indonesian authorities as well as with local communities. Zoos in the U.S. and Europe will provide the bulk of the captive-bred turtles for both stocking a newly built breeding and holding facility in Indonesia and for eventual release into two protected lakes in Roti Island. Singapore and the Singapore Zoo are partners in this project, providing funding, facilities, expertise, and facilitating transfer of turtles back to Indonesia.

The Zoo’s herpetology team has been working on establishing a new pair for breeding, with the sole intent of producing mccordi for release back to Roti. We received a female that was living alone at Columbus Zoo, but was reproductively active, laying infertile eggs like a hen. She arrived last year, and, once she cleared mandatory quarantine (and received a lot of care from our veterinary staff), was transferred to a breeding set-up at our reptile holding area with the recommended male (who hatched at the L.A. Zoo years ago).

The female has laid two fertile clutches of eggs, which are currently incubating at the LAIR. The photo above is of the first Roti Island snake-necked turtle hatched from one of these clutches, for the specific purpose of reestablishing the species in nature. If all goes as planned, we should have about 10 total hatchlings in 2021!

The aptly named snake-necked turtle was once the subject of intensive collection for the pet trade, which contributed to its extinction in the wild. Photo by Ian Recchio.

Author: Ian Recchio