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Fitzroy River turtle

Common name: Fitzroy River turtle

Scientific name: Rheodytes leukops (Gk. rheos = stream, leukos = white)

Family: Chelidae (Side-necked turtles)

Conservation status: This species is listed as Vulnerable in Queensland (Queensland Nature Conservation Act 1992) and nationally (Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999). It is also considered a high priority for conservation under the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection 'Back on Track' species prioritisation framework.

Description

The Fitzroy River turtle is a freshwater turtle with large and fully webbed feet. The carapace (shell) reaches a maximum length of 250mm and is medium to dark brown with some darker markings. This species has a white ring around its eye (metallic silver-blue in juveniles).

Habitat and distribution

This turtle was first described in 1980 and is only found in the Fitzroy River and its tributaries, around Rockhampton in eastern central Queensland. The species occurs within permanent freshwater riverine reaches and large, isolated permanent waterholes.

Life history and behaviour

The Fitzroy River turtle is known to feed on the larvae of aquatic insects and ribbon weed.

The breeding season is from September to October. Females excavate a nest in the sand or gravel riverbank during the night and lay 60 or 70 eggs in a number of clutches, each egg about 29mm long and 21mm wide. The eggs take about 47 days to hatch (at 30 degrees Celsius).

The Fitzroy River turtle is sometimes called a "bottom-breathing turtle" due to its highly unusual ability of absorbing oxygen under water through the cloaca (the single opening under the tail used for passing of waste and reproductive material). This enables them to spend virtually all of their time under water and not surface for days.

Threatening processes

The biggest threat facing the Fitzroy River turtle is the loss of eggs and the disturbance of nesting sites from predation by feral pigs, foxes and goannas. The age of individuals within the populations of this species indicate that very few turtles have hatched in recent decades as a result of nest predation.

The construction of weirs along the Fitzroy River has also reduced the amount of suitable habitat for this and other species of freshwater turtles - particularly those species requiring well-oxygenated flowing water.

This turtle is also threatened by the pollution and siltation of rivers and creeks, and the modification of riparian (waterway) vegetation by grazing and agricultural practices, mining, and timber harvesting.

Boat strike is also likely to be a cause of injury and mortality.

Recovery actions

  • Maintain nesting banks used by the turtles and protect turtle nests from predation and disturbance
  • Improve recruitment of hatchlings into the population
  • Maintain stream flow and the continuity of turtle populations between impoundments
  • Improve water quality in the lower Fitzroy River catchment
  • Boat owners should look out for turtles floating at the surface and 'go slow for those below' to give turtles time to get out of the way of oncoming boats.

Related information

Cann, J. (1998). Australian Freshwater Turtles, Beaumont Publishing.

Cogger, H.G., Cameron, E., Sadlier, R. & Eggler, P. (1993). The Action Plan for Australian Reptiles. Australian Nature Conservation Agency, Canberra.

Ehmann, H. (1992). Encyclopedia of Australian Animals, Volume 3. Reptiles. Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Last reviewed
23 February 2011
Last updated
22 July 2010