Celebrating nature’s vacuum cleaners on World Turtle Day

A turtle swimming underwater

To mark World Turtle Day, Wednesday 23 May, University of Western Sydney freshwater turtle expert Dr Ricky Spencer is available for media interviews.

Dr Spencer, from UWS School of Science and Health, says Australia has largely been immune to the global decline in freshwater turtles, even though over 40 percent of the world's species are threatened with extinction, making them among the most threatened groups of animals on the planet.

"Turtles play a key role in Australian waterways. They live in almost all rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds throughout Australia, except in Tasmania," he says.

"They are the cleaners that help maintain water ecosystem health for plants and other animals, including humans."

Turtles swimming underwater

Dr Spencer says freshwater turtles are like a vacuum in the river, eating copious amounts of algae and dead material. They also consume pest fish, such as European carp.

For more than a decade Dr Spencer has been studying Australian freshwater turtles in the nation's rivers, including the Murray and at a purpose built facility at the UWS Hawkesbury campus near Richmond where he raises several hundred hatchlings each year.

Holding a turtle hatchling 

While researching turtle resilience, Dr Spencer and his PhD candidate, Fiona Loudon, have been evaluating if anti-ageing properties exist in turtles.

"Long-term population studies on freshwater turtles have shown that they do not appear to go through traditional menopause; instead the largest and oldest turtles are still the individuals producing the biggest clutches of eggs. Combined with their longevity, our preliminary research may have important anti-ageing implications for humans," says Dr Spencer.

Turtle hatching

In 2011, Dr Spencer's research found amazing behaviours of turtle embryos inside eggs within a nest.

"Certain species of freshwater turtle embryos are able to communicate their developmental status to each other and less advanced embryos are able to increase their metabolic and developmental rates in order to hatch and emerge from the nest synchronously," says Dr Spencer.

"They are truly remarkable creatures that are fascinating to study."


Editors note:

Dr Spencer is available for interviews and media visits to the turtle hatchling facilities are possible by arrangement.

High resolution images of Australian freshwater turtles are also available on request.



22 May 2012

All photographs, except the turtle hatching, taken by Sally Toustas

Contact: Paul Grocott, Senior Media Officer