Extinct Turtle Never Existed

Turtle extinction is a serious crisis, with approximately half of around 328 species at risk of becoming extinct. In Asia, around 75 percent of freshwater turtle species are threatened or endangered. However, a German team from Senckenberg Research Institute in Dresden reported today that one species of supposedly extinct turtle never existed at all.

That species, a mud turtle called Pelusios seychellensi, was allegedly collected three times in the 19th century in the Indian Ocean island of Mahé in the remote Seychelles island. But it was never found again, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature ultimately listed it as the world’s first (and so far only) extinct freshwater turtle species.

However, the Dresden team has now performed DNA analysis on the three specimens, which they have published in the open access journal PLOS One. According to the mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down through the female line, the three specimens were wrongly identified members of a very common west African mud turtle species, P. castaneus.

Of course, the Seychelles island of Mahé is nowhere near west Africa, since it’s offshore the eastern side of the very large continent. How then did the specimens travel to the island? Were they pets? Or were they never collected there at all and instead mixed up somehow in transit?

At this point, we’ll probably never know. The takeaway is that all freshwater turtle species are still hanging on and accounted for.

But the threat of freshwater turtle extinction hasn’t gone away, thanks to the poaching crisis sparked by the animals’ perceived value as pets, food, and medicine.

A shocking report came from Thailand recently, when a pair of smugglers were arrested for trying to transport over one-tenth of Madagascar’s critically endangered ploughshare tortoises through Bangkok’s international airport.

And, in Indonesia, customs officials were able to seize almost 700 pig-nose turtles that someone tried to ship as cargo through a Jakarta airport. At the last report, those smugglers still hadn’t been caught.

The supposedly extinct Seychelles mud turtle is doing just fine as a west African mud turtle. However, other turtles near extinction may not be as lucky.

[Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle photo courtesy the National Park Service]