'Butt-breathing' punk-haired turtle is now officially endangered (Video)

Chris Van Wyk
© Chris Van Wyk

Turtles are seen as pretty slow and placid creatures, but the Mary river turtle (Elusor macrurus) of Queensland, Australia must be the most badass of them all: not only does it have an amazing green-coloured mohawk hairdo, it also breathes through its genitals, allowing it to stay underwater for up to three days.

Unfortunately, it's also been added recently to the Zoological Society of London's (ZSL) Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) list of endangered animals as one of the top 30 most endangered reptiles on the planet. Found only in the Mary River, this turtle can grow up to 15 inches (40 centimetres) long and is one of Australia's largest turtles, and was only recognized as its own species during the 1990s.

The Mary river turtle is capable of two modes of respiraiton, capable of breathing air on land and underwater. It has gill-like organs in its cloaca -- a posterior opening that's used for eliminating bodily wastes and mating -- which allow it to breathe underwater for long periods of time. It's this time they spend submerged that promotes the growth of algae on the turtles' head, giving them their distinctive appearance and the strange nickname of "butt-breathers."

Chris Van Wyk© Chris Van Wyk

Owing to these unique qualities, these creatures are popular as pets during the 1960s and 1970s. Their nests were raided of eggs by the thousands by humans, which negatively affected their populations. It's pretty serious, as ZSL reptile biologist Rikki Gumbs tells CNN:

The turtle takes a long time to reach sexual maturity, taking up to 25 to 30 years. As their vulnerability was discovered late, we lost a whole generation due to the pet trade and now their population has become very small.

Currently, there is no official government plan in place to save this endangered turtle from extinction, though according to The Guardian, one was drafted up in 2013 but not implemented. Researchers and volunteers of the Tiaro Landcare who are working to protect the turtles have had to resort to selling turtle-shaped chocolates, crowdfunding and international donations to make up for the shortfall.

Chris Van Wyk© Chris Van Wyk

It's a sorry state of affairs for such an extraordinary critter, but hopefully that will change as more people become aware of its precarious existence and help to save it. To find out more, visit the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) list; or donate or buy a t-shirt to help crowdfund conservation efforts to protect the Mary river turtle.

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