Fact file: Mary River turtle (Elusor macrurus)

Image: “Mary river turtle” by Daniela Parra F. is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.


IUCN statusEndangered
Population sizeUnknown
Population trendDecreasing
Unique evolutionary history45 million years

Why is the Mary River turtle so special?

Only described by science in 1994, the Mary River turtle is the last of its line as the only species left in its genus. It has evolved independently for so long that it still retains features that have been lost in all other modern turtles, such as the haemal arches in its tail. It has huge hind feet and a tiny head which also help it to become one of the fastest swimming turtles.

These evolutionary wonders are also known as the punk turtle and the green-haired turtle, on account of the algae that often grows on their heads and are one of Australia’s largest turtles.

If all that is not enough to make you love these critters, you should probably also know that unlike most other turtles, this species can absorb oxygen through their cloaca using bimodal respiration. In other words, they breathe with their butts! This is a system so effective that they can submerge themselves for days at a time underwater.

Mary River Turtle” by xhtmled is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

What are the threats facing the Mary River turtle?

Endemic to only a single river system in Australia, the Mary River, Elusor macrurus has had some serious pressures placed on its survivability over the last century. Despite only being scientifically described in the 90s, this turtle has had its adults and eggs taken from the wild to be sold into the pet trade since the 60s. Around 12,000 eggs per year were collected commercially between 1962 and 1974. Although since then the trade aspect has declined, urban encroachment has increased destroying much of their habitat, with invasive plants further affecting this species sensitive breeding cycle.

Additional threats include the ever-looming climate change, as well as predation from invasive red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and native goannas (Varanus varius).

What is being done to help save the Mary River turtle from extinction?

The Tiaro & District Landcare Group protects individual nests with a plastic mesh and baits for foxes.

Australian Freshwater Turtle Conservation and Research Association, started breeding this species in captivity for release into the wild in 2007.

In 2019 a hatchery was purpose built for this species along the banks of the Mary River.

What can I do to help?

If you want to help save this amazing animal from extinction then head over to the Tiaro & District Landcare Group’s website where you can donate directly to their conservation work or learn more about their conservation guidelines:

  • Be a citizen scientist – record all turtle sightings on TurtleSat www.turtlesat.org.au
  • Be a turtle warrior – learn all about turtles and their habitat and encourage your friends to value these creatures.
  • Care for turtle habitat.
  • Keep pets at home – wild dogs destroy turtle nests, captive bred turtles may carry disease or parasites and releasing them into the wild could harm the wild population.
  • Control feral animals – this will reduce predation on turtle nests.
  • Don’t use stainless steel fish hooks as they do not degrade.
  • Organise a fund-raising event to help Tiaro Landcare save the Mary River turtle.

If you love weird animals of all shapes and sizes and you want to see how you can help with WAWA’s conservation support, then please see how you can get involved here.

Elusor macrurus, Mary River Turtle” by Scott Eipper is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

References and further information

Beukeboom, R. (2015). Threats to the early life stages of the Mary River turtle (Elusor macrurus) from Queensland, Australia (Doctoral dissertation, M. Sc. Thesis, Utrecht University, Netherlands).

Clark, N. J., Gordos, M. A., & Franklin, C. E. (2008). Thermal plasticity of diving behavior, aquatic respiration, and locomotor performance in the Mary River turtle Elusor macrurus. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, 81(3), 301-309.

Flakus, S. (2002). The ecology of the Mary River turtle. Elusor macrurus. Brisbane: Department of Zoology and Entomology, The University of Queensland.

Micheli-Campbell, M. A. D. (2012). Habitat requirements for nesting and early life-stages of the endangered Mary River turtle (Elusor macrurus): Insights for conservation (Doctoral dissertation, Ph. D. Thesis, The University of Queensland, Brisbane).