Turtle That Breathes Through Its Genitals Lands on Endangered Reptiles List

Australia’s Mary River turtle was a popular pet in the 1960s and 70s, but raids of the animal’s nests have driven it towards extinction

Mary river turtle - rank 30 - Elusor macrurus - Chris Van Wyk_3.jpg
Chris Van Wyk

The Mary River turtle is an odd little reptile. Finger-like protrusions dangle from its chin, it breathes through gill-like organs in its genitals and vertical strands of algae sprout from its head, making it look like a punk rocker. This weird and wonderful creature is also facing the threat of extinction. As Patrick Barkham reports for the Guardian, the Mary River turtle has ranked high on a new list of the world’s most endangered reptiles.

The Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) list, which is compiled by the Zoological Society of London, assigns a score to species based on their extinction risk and their evolutionary uniqueness. The organization has previously compiled rankings of endangered mammals, amphibians, birds and corals.

The Mary River turtle, which diverged from all other living species 40 million years ago, ranks 30th out of the 50 animals included on the new reptile list. The most endangered, according to the ranking, is the Madagascar Big-headed turtle, followed by Central American River Turtle and the Madagascar Blind Snake.

As its name suggests, the Mary River turtle lives only in the flowing streams of the Mary River in Queensland, Australia. It is one of several species of turtle that can breathe using specialized glands in their cloacas—organs that are used for both excretion and mating—which allows it to stay submerged in water for up to 72 hours. According to Carly Cassella of Science Alert, the critter boasts a number of features that are not seen in any other modern turtle, like the two rows of tubercles that act like feelers. The tail of the Mary River turtle can also grow to exceptional lengths—up to 70 percent longer than the length of its shell.

The species has a gentle disposition, which, in the 1960s and 70s, made it a popular pet. During that period, 15,000 Mary River turtle eggs were sold to pet shops every year, and the unchecked raiding of the animal’s nests played a large part in driving the turtle towards extinction. According to the Australia Zoo, Mary River turtles are also threatened by habitat degradation, which includes “problems such as a deterioration of water quality through riverside vegetation being cleared, water pollution through siltation, agricultural chemical contamination and water flow disruptions through the construction of weirs for irrigation and predation.”

In a statement, EDGE reptile biologist Rikki Gumbs said that reptiles “often receive the short end of the stick in conservation terms, compared with the likes of birds and mammals.” He hopes the new ranking will give conservationists a helpful tool for prioritizing species’ conservation needs, and bring the public’s attention to at-risk reptiles—many of whom are the only remaining survivors of ancient lineages.

“If we lose these species,” Gumbs says, “there will be nothing like them left on Earth.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.