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Australian Flatback Turtle.
Photo: Chris Johnson

September 17, 2001
Australian Flatback Turtle
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

The other day two sooty terns drew our attention to a sea turtle on whose back the birds were perched. As we approached, the birds took flight and we were able to identify the species as an Australian Flatback turtle. Although this was our first sighting of this particular species since the voyage began, it was easy to identify due to its characteristic flat shell from which it derives its name.

The shell of the flatback is soft and skin like. It lives almost exclusively in Australian waters where its distribution is restricted to the north. Interestingly, the turtle is not found on the Great Barrier Reef, it is believed this may be due to the sharp corals that could easily damage its delicate fleshy shell. Hatchlings of the Flatback are not dispersed like other turtle species, which means they do not encounter the turtle hunters of neighbouring countries, and as a consequence are the least threatened of all species found here. However, this does not mean that the Flatback lives a trouble free life. Turtles still drown in fishing nets and suffocate when they swallow floating plastic bags that impersonate their favorite food, jellyfish.

Very few hatchlings survive to return and nest themselves. Most are taken at a young age by birds, crabs, fish and sharks and even for those lucky few who survive to old age, the turtle continues to live a precarious life. This turtle we encountered was missing its front left flipper, probably due to a shark attack, which is a constant threat to them. Sea turtles are high on the dietary list of sharks, particularly the tiger shark for whom turtles are a favorite. A fairly common resident of northern Australian waters, the shark often bites lumps from the softer fleshy parts of the animal, such as the tail and limbs. This turtle in all other respects appeared healthy and its ability to swim unhindered. If the shark did not return to continue feeding, this turtle would be quite capable of surviving.

Long-necked Turtle.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Turtles have survived relatively unchanged for around 200 million years. Of the roughly 260 species known worldwide, 23 are found in Australia. Sea turtles have flippers and generally differ from freshwater species who have legs with webbed feet and claws. The webbed feet of the long-necked turtle enables it to swim fast while their legs enable them to travel long distances overland to reach rivers and watering holes.

Of the seven species of sea turtles found worldwide, all are listed as endangered. In Australia, the non-commercial taking of turtles by the indigenous people of Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia is permitted for subsistence purposes. This indigenous harvest appears to have an insignificant impact on the wild turtle populations, and in all other respects they are totally protected.

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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