World's Cutest Baby Turtle Is Part of an Amazing Story

Soft-shell baby turtle on the sand

Yoeung Sun / WCS

Asian giant softshell turtles were once thought to be extinct in the Mekong River; this little trooper is one of 150 hatchlings bringing them back.

In 2007, much to the surprise of biologists and conservationists, an Asian giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) was found along the Mekong River in Cambodia. Members of the species hadn't been seen in years and were thought to be gone forever. A group representing several conservation organizations gathered eggs and released hatchlings back to the habitat; since then, a community protection program has been helping to increase the wild population of the turtles. Sometimes it takes a village.

Variously called a Cantor's giant softshell turtle or a frogface turtle, P. cantorii is the largest freshwater turtle in the world and boasts some unusual attributes. It lacks the most turtle-y feature of all – a shell – and relies on fused ribs to create a bit of a cage, covered with thick rubbery skin. It also spends 95 percent of its life under the sand or mud with only its eyes and nose exposed; yet as an ambush predator, it is in possession of a nice set of a claws, a lightning-fast head and jaws powerful enough to crush bone! An adult is pictured below.

Asian softshell turtle
Yoeung Sun / WCS

Unfortunately for these awesome creatures, habitat loss and their desirability as meat and eggs has led them to the IUCN Endangered list – but with the work of WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), along with Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration (FiA) and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), chances for the beleaguered turtle's survival are looking better.

The community program implemented by the conservation groups employs a multi-prong approach – one of the best parts is a wonderful example of simple problem-solving logic. They hire former nest collectors to search for and protect nests, instead of harvesting the eggs. Since 2007, 329 nests have been protected and 7,709 hatchlings released.

The hatchling above was a member of a recent release of more than 150 of the little guys. It's sobering to think: If these groups weren't out there working for the fate of this one species, the planet would have one less fascinating turtle hiding in the mud ... and we'd be deprived of photos of the world's cutest turtle making a break for the riverbank.

For more, visit WCS.