Australia is home to about 23 species of freshwater turtle. All but one of these species belong to the family Chelidae, which is found only in Australasia and South America. These ‘side-necked’ turtles retract their head and neck beneath their shell by folding it to one side, rather than drawing their head backwards as most of the world’s species of turtles and tortoises do.
Australia also has 6 species of marine turtles but lacks the truly land-based tortoises that occur on all other continents except Antarctica.
Freshwater turtles in New South Wales
NSW is home to 7 species of native freshwater turtle, two of which are found nowhere else.
North American species of freshwater turtles like the red-eared slider turtle have also been found in the Sydney region, probably as a result of people releasing imported pets into local waterways.
Long necked turtle species
Breeding and life cycle
Australia’s freshwater turtles spend most of their time in rivers, lakes, swamps and ponds, including farm dams. However, they sometimes come onto land to migrate between water bodies or to nest. Some species can also survive for months in a dormant state buried in soil or dry lake beds. However, they are not able to feed out of water.
Nesting turtles dig a hole in the ground with their hind legs, lay their eggs in the hole, then cover the eggs with earth. A clutch may comprise as many as 25 eggs, depending on the species of turtle and her size. After a few months the eggs hatch and the hatchling turtles make their way to the water, where they typically take around 10 years to grow to maturity.
Little is known about the life span of Australian freshwater turtles, but they can probably live for 50 years or more.
In NSW, freshwater turtles face many threats. Introduced foxes and pigs rob their nests and in some areas consume over 90% of their eggs. The baby turtles that hatch from the few remaining eggs have to contend with turtle-eating fish, birds and other predators. Adult turtles are protected by their shells from most natural predators when they are in the water, but when they venture onto land they can be killed by dogs, foxes or pigs, or crushed by motor vehicles.
Droughts also take a heavy toll on turtles by drying their habitats and depriving them of food. In addition, turtles are often drowned in illegal fishing nets or killed by fishers who become annoyed at catching a turtle instead of a fish on their hook.
Although some populations of native freshwater turtles are thriving, in many places they are declining because of the combination of hazards they encounter and the long time they take to reach an age at which they can begin to reproduce. Fox control is often an effective way to boost turtle recruitment and enable depleted populations to recover.
These ancient reptiles are diminishing in numbers around the world, mainly due to human impacts. Freshwater turtles are threatened by such things as:
- plastic bags and other waste, which the turtles mistake for jellyfish
- cigarette butts
- fishing lines and hooks
- boat and propeller collisions
- entanglement and drowning in nets, ropes, floats or traps
- habitat destruction, poor water quality and seagrass depletion
- deliberate acts of cruelty
How you can help
It's easy to help protect freshwater turtles. Here are a few simple things you can do:
- appropriately dispose of your rubbish
- collect litter on or near the waterways
- when boating, travel slowly over seagrass beds
- report people engaging in illegal netting or trapping
- help in coastal health projects (e.g. seagrass monitoring)
- join your local animal rescue and care group
- report sick or injured turtles to your local NPWS office.
Protection in NSW
Under NSW law it is an offence to harm native turtles without a licence, and heavy penalties apply. If you suspect that someone has unlawfully harmed a turtle of other native animal, please report it to the OEH Environment Line (131 555). Please report suspected illegal fishing nets to the nearest Fisheries Office or the Fishers Watch Phoneline (1800 043 536).
Protection of native animals
All native birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, but not including dingoes, are protected in NSW by the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016.