Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle: Captive Breeding Program 2015 Update

The annals and magazine of natural history : zoology, botany, anWith news coverage of this year’s attempts to breed Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), the world’s rarest freshwater turtle, hitting the pages of the New York Times this month, it would appear scientists aren’t the only ones tuning in to see what fate his in store for a species for which there are only four individuals known to exist in the wild or captivity today.

Swinhoe’s softshell turtle has long been famous for it role in Vietnamese legend as the fabled Sword Lake Turtle, which inhabits Hoàn Kiếm Lake (“The Lake of the Returned Sword”) in Hanoi, Vietnam. But of the handful of Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to scientists to exist in the wild or captivity in recent years, five have died since the 1990s, leaving only four remaining: one in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, one in the wild in Đồng Mỏ Lake west of Hanoi, and two in captivity, the latter now both part of the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program.

Since 2008, when the Changsha Zoo’s female, “China Girl,” was relocated to Suzhou, scientists at Suzhou Zoo have undertaken a captive breeding program with their older male turtle. But despite repeated bouts of courtship displays and mating between the pair in the years since, the resulting eggs have failed to hatch. Remediative actions to date, including steps to improve their diet by constructing a glass wall to prevent visitors from tossing junk food into their inclosure, provisioning the pair with a more natural diet (e.g. whole shrimp, freshwater crayfish, fishes, freshwater snails, frogs, quail, pigeons), and redesigning their enclosure to allow the pair more time together, have proven unsuccessful.

After the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program reported last fall that their male may be infertile, the future of the program and the species were both at risk. In a move that lets slip their growing concern for the species’ survival, researchers this spring attempted what had until recently been considered by stakeholders too controversial – artificial insemination.

On May 6th, herpetologists Gerald Kuchling with the Turtle Survival Alliance and Lu Shunqing with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s China branch, together with a team of specialists, anesthetized the Suzhou male and – with a stack of car tires as an examination table – used an electrical probe to extract sperm. In doing so, the team was also able to closely examine the male’s penis and found that it had been mangled, possibly during an ill-fated encounter with a second captive male several years ago.

Although the sperm showed low motility, they were otherwise deemed viable and were deposited in the sedated female’s oviducts. However, with so little known about the reproductive physiology of turtles and tortoises, much less the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, only time will tell whether this year’s attempt proves successful.

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Western Pond Turtle Brochure – Revised

It has been a while since I last updated the How You Can Help Western Pond Turtles brochure I developed several years ago in response to an inquiry from a San Francisco Bay Area resident who stumbled across a western pond turtle at her front door.  But with this year’s drought, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and wildlife rescue centers has been flooded by well-meaning citizens who don’t know what to do when they see a turtle out of water. So in response to CDFW’s timely outreach campaign to, “If you care, leave them there!” and redirecting viewers to the educational brochure, it seems like now is as good a time as ever to update and recirculate this public outreach tool.

Click here to download brochure (15 MB .pdf)

This full-color, tri-fold brochure describes our local turtle, describes what to do if you find a turtle, and provides guidance to private landowners and public land managers alike on the best ways to protect and conserve western pond turtles through proactive land stewardship. My goal with this project is to distribute a tool to the public that provides consistent guidance: protect and conserve suitable aquatic and nesting habitat, curb invasive species, and leave healthy turtles in the wild where they belong.

And it’s free! So download the revised .pdf, print, and distribute.

I encourage wildlife rescue/rehabilitation centers, state and federal agencies, parks and refuges, land trusts, and wildlife biologists to share this resource with the public. If readers drop me a Comment (below) with their organization’s name to let me know they wish to print and distribute this brochure, I’ll create a register with links to the participating parties’ websites.

As the list of western pond turtle educational resources evolves, I’ll continue to post them on the new Educational Material section of (bio)accumulation‘s pages dedicated to the western pond turtle. There, you’ll also find the Field Guide to the Western Pond Turtle, a diagnostic poster that illustrates the western pond turtle’s general field markings and the traits that distinguish males and females.

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USFWS Announces 90-Day Finding on Petition to List the Western Pond Turtle

In recent years, the western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) has shown signs of decline along the Pacific Coast, especially at either end of its range in Washington and Oregon to the north, and in southern California. Among the threats currently facing the species today include upland nesting and aquatic habitat loss/conversion; water diversion; drought; disease transmission and competition from invasive species like the red-eared slider; and predation from non-native species like the American bullfrog and large-mouth bass.

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In July 2012 the Center for Biological Diversity filed an Endangered Species Act petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, appropriately called the Petition to List 53 Amphibians and Reptiles in the United States as Threatened or Endangered Species Under the Endangered Species Act, including the western pond turtle as one of the 53 candidate species. After review as part of an (extended) 90-day Findings process to determine if there is enough information to warrant further review, on April 9, 2015 the USFWS announced in a proposed rule that there is sufficient evidence to suggest the western pond turtle’s situation warrants a formal status review, and will undergo the subsequent 12-month Findings process for consideration as a federally Threatened or Endangered species in all or portions of its range (see also the CBD’s press release, here).

Those individuals with scientific and commercial data or other information pertinent to the potential listing of the western pond turtle should submit all information on or before June 9, 2015 in accordance with the instructions provided in the proposed rule.

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Book Review: The Monochotomous Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Metropolitan San Francisco Bay Region – A Diagnostic Key

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The Monochotomous Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Metropolitan San Francisco Bay Region – A Diagnostic Key, by Skóla Per-Hús Degrasse, Feaux•Afield Guides (www.feauxafieldguides.com), 2015, 401 pages, $89.95

Over the centuries, traditional field identification keys have proven clumsy, confusing, and unreliable for everyday scientists. Especially in the herpetological community, the battle between diagnosticians and field biologists has proven especially messy. The surprising dearth today of keys in the field of herpetology stems from a long-pitched battle between proponents of the synoptic (taxonomic) and diagnostic key camps, and the appropriateness of dichotomous (bifurcating) versus polytomous (multifurcating) keys.

Take for example the following schema. When presented with a couplet offering two leads in the traditional diagnostic dichotomous key to California’s hodgepodge of slender salamanders, the operator is left stranded in a sea of keels and folds:

39.1-7a. Dorsolateral fold hirsute, marginal scales abruptly to gently keeled, axilla-to-groin interstice hourglass-shaped
39.1-7b. Dorsolateral fold naked to downy, marginal scales gently to abruptly keeled, axilla-to-groin interstice empire waist-shaped

And let’s face it – not every field biologist has the luxury of having a specimen in hand to count inguinal folds or nasolabial scutes. Recognizing the need for a linear identification key, Occidentalis College Professor Skóla Per-Hús Degrasse of western Fen’s lizard fame has developed the world’s first monochotomous key to San Francisco Bay Area herptiles. The basis of the Degrasse Monochotomous Key is the ‘Quid est Cascade’ – simply turn to the monochotomous key, ask yourself “What is it I saw?”, and work your way down the cascade of species names until you find the salamander or frog or lizard or snake or turtle you saw. When you come across the correct species, look to the right-hand side of the page for a page number. There, in line with the simplicity of the Degrasse Monochotomous Key, each resulting photo-profile includes four color photographs and the species’ common and scientific name. Look at the pictures and ask yourself, “Is it a _____ I saw?” If not, turn back to the start of the monochotomous key and start again. TOC Grab By implementing a schema no more sophisticated than a table of contents, this singular guide has already revolutionized the world of field diagnostics. Williams Harland, editor in chief at Feaux•Afield Guides, likens the Degrasse Monochotomous Key to the proverbial 7-Minute Abs. “You walk into a book store, you see 8-Minute Abs sittin’ there, there’s 7-Minute Abs right beside it. Which one are you going to pick? There’s something about marrying science and simplicity that makes this key so ingenious. Where other keys are tedious, laborious manuals that demand a meticulous understanding of anatomical minutiae, the Degrasse guide is like picking up a coffee table book.”

“The snakes in Degrasse’s guide, for example, key out with little more than a flip of the page,” says Harland, who has been watching Degrasse grow under his feat of taking the key from concept to completion. “Demand on Degrasse’s knowledge has shaped this guide into the real deal, a plausible book depository of all things herpetological.”

Printed on archival, heavy-stock 12′ x 19′ folio sheets, the final presentation of this exquisite hardbound guide includes decorative gilt boards, spine, and edges, a water-proof tooled Moroccan leather-bound presentation box (to protect it against the elements during field work), and ribbon marker. The Monochotomous Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Metropolitan San Francisco Bay Region – A Diagnostic Key is slated to hit bookshelves April 1st.

{APRIL FOOLS DAY POST 2015}

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Burrowing Owl Surveys at Warm Springs

52This April, the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory (SFBBO) is looking for volunteers to assist with western burrowing owl breeding surveys at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge in south Fremont. The surveys will take place on the Warm Springs Unit of the refuge, a 700-acre vernal pool grassland home to special-status species like burrowing owls as well as California tiger salamanders, vernal pool tadpole shrimp, and Contra Costa goldfields.

The SFBBO, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is looking for 60 volunteers over three survey sessions (with priority given to current SFBBO members):

  • Session 1: Wednesday, April 15th – 5:00 p.m. to 7:45 p.m.
  • Session 1: Thursday, April 16th – 5:00 p.m. to 7:45 p.m.
  • Session 1: Wednesday, April 18 – 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Training will be provided on site beforehand to familiarize volunteers with survey techniques. Volunteers are cautioned to wear layered clothing; sturdy shoes/boots; and plenty of water.

To volunteer, send an email to SFBBO Habitats Ecologist Aidona Kakouros at akakouros@sfbbo.org with the subject line “BUOW surveys in Warm Springs”.

The application deadline is Friday, April 10.

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