13 female turtles will be equipped with GPS devices along the Australian Murray River east of Echuca. The technology is being used in order to better understand and protect the native turtles. Five common long-necked turtles have already been equipped with GPS devices, while the remaining nine will be attached to the threatened and elusive, broad-shelled Murray River turtle. It is important that all the devices are attached to the turtles before breeding season in March, so the researchers can best understand how to protect these animals.
The study was initiated by the native Yorta Yorta people, who were very concerned about the effects of a recent drought on the Murray River Turtle. Large numbers of the Murray River turtles were found dead and dying throughout the forests surrounding the Murray River. The broad-shelled species is a totem of the Yorta Yorta people, believed to be their protector and provider. The native people have expressed excitement and interest in growing their scientific knowledge of the sacred turtle. “Protecting it is a cultural responsibility for our community,” explained Lee Joachim, a Yorta Yorta representative.
The GPS devices attached to these Australian turtles were specially designed by a U.S. manufacturer for this project. These devices were designed to only record location information while on land. The researchers are less concerned with the turtles movements in water, and much more interested in their behavior on land. “We have a ‘freshwater switch’ on it, which means that when the turtle surfaces it allows the GPS to try to the satellites,” explained Katie Howard, ecologist. The primary reason for this being that the turtles rarely come on land for any reason other than breeding and laying eggs. In order to best protect the species, a top priority is making sure that nothing is obstructing the species from reproducing.
Although the project started because of severe droughts, the region has more recently been enduring floods. The data will now be used to compare the movements and habits of these turtles during drought and flood seasons. The results of these studies will be used to protect the nests of the Murray River turtles, which will be overseen by the Yorta Yorta indigenous rangers.