DNA Test Saves Thousands of Illegally Trafficked Turtles

It helps get the animals back to their habitat more quickly.

Matamata Turtle on Log
The Matamata turtle has a knobby shell and snorkel-like snout. Mark Kostich / Getty Images

More than 2,000 Matamata turtles were rescued by Colombian officials who stopped the illegal shipment and identified the animals using a rapid DNA test. The interesting-looking turtles were returned to the Orinoco river basin.

The DNA test is instant, simple, portable, and accurate in IDing species. It helps get the animals back into their natural habitat more quickly.

The Matamata turtle is a native South American species with a knobby shell, ridged neck, and a long, snorkel-like snout. Although it is illegal to trade the turtles in Colombia, the distinctive animals are popular with traffickers who whisk them off to the U.S., Europe, and Asia where they can legally be sold for hundreds of dollars.

“The trade in this and other species of turtle has increased in recent years. In particular, the matamata seizures by Colombian authorities have increased five-fold in the last five years,” test co-creator Diego Cardeñosa, a postdoctoral researcher at Florida International University (FIU), tells Treehugger.

“As with many other wild species, the price in black markets increases with rare, exotic species. In the pet trade exotic odd-looking animals fetch high prices.”

When customs officials spotted the baby turtles, they knew they had seized a protected species. But they needed help determining which species of Matamata the animals were. Researchers had recently found that there are two genetically distinct species of Matamata turtles. Although they appear nearly identical, one lives exclusively in the Orinoco river basin and the other in the Amazon River basin.

When illegally trafficked turtles are found, it’s critical to quickly identify the species so they can be returned to the correct habitat. Introducing a species to the wrong river basin could have negative consequences that could affect the native turtle population's health.

In the past, officials would transport a few turtles to a lab for DNA testing. While they waited for results, they often also struggled to keep thousands of turtles alive.

Some Conservation Good News

Cardeñosa and FIU marine scientist Demian Chapman developed the DNA testing toolkit. Cardeñosa worked with scientists and authorities at the International Airport Alfredo Vásquez Cobo in Leticia, Colombia to test the shipment of freshwater turtles. 

Their work was published in Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.

With the toolkit, officials can ID species on-site in about two hours. That reduces stress on the animals and gets them home faster. It costs about $1 per sample.

The duo initially created the kit to help customs officials recognize illegal shipments of shark fins and meat. In 2020, customs officials used the test in a historic seizure of illegally trafficked shark fins in Ecuador. The test has been used in Hong Kong to detect illegally smuggled European eels.

“It feels great,” Cardeñosa says. “In a field like conservation biology where good news is not common and where we see population declines and extinctions almost everywhere we look, it is always rewarding to be able to help in any way we can.”

The researchers hope to bring the toolkit to other countries for routine port inspections to help other species that are part of the illegal wildlife and pet trade.

View Article Sources
  1. Cardeñosa, Diego, et al. "Rapid Species and River‐of‐Origin Determination for Matamata Turtles ( Chelus Sp.) Using Real‐Time PCR: Facilitating Rapid Return of Trafficked Specimens Back to the Wild." Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 2021, doi:10.1002/aqc.3613

  2. "MATAMATA TURTLE." Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.