Shell-shockers! Local officials unveil ultra-rare albino, two-headed turtles

Two albino snapping turtles and another turtle born with two heads.

Weird things happen in nature – or in a lab – that humans rarely see. But staff at a London-area conservation authority are getting an up-close look at these unusual specimens thanks to a program designed to help save endangered turtles.

“We’ve been doing the spiny softshell turtle recovery work for a number of years, and this has been another very successful year,” Scott Gillingwater, a species-at-risk biologist, said, standing next to dozens of newly hatched turtles at the Upper Thames River Conversation Authority.

“But when you have large numbers of turtles and turtle hatchlings coming out of the lab . . . you end up with some animals that are not always normal or look like the others.”

The two-headed map turtle poked out of its shell at the conservation authority three days ago, Gillingwater said.

“Because we do bring in large numbers of eggs, not all of the turtles will hatch out normally,” he said. “Some will have odd shapes or additional limbs, and in the case of the map turtle, it ended up with two heads.”

The exact cause of the deformity is unknown, Gillingwater said, though his team was able to rule out variations in incubation temperature.

In nature, two-headed turtles are unlikely to live long, because the deformity makes it difficult to find food and retract into their shell for protection, he said, estimating their chances of survival in the wild at less than half of one per cent.

The turtle is one of few anomalies Gillingwater has encountered in his 28 years of monitoring and restoring various types of species.

“We’ve had two-headed turtles we had found inside an egg that died before they were able to hatch,” he said. “Very rarely does that happen – only once in 20 years – that we had a two-headed turtle emerge from an egg.”

Also new this year are two albino snapping turtles from two different nests, the result of a “rare recessive trait” found in turtle populations, he said.

“We do know that in some cases, albinos do survive to maturity . . . although for the most part, they do stand out, and they’re a target for herons, fish and even bullfrogs.”

Gillingwater said his team plans to release the snapping turtles and other recent hatchlings, possibly including the two-headed turtle, within the next week.

The authority expects to have incubated and released about 4,500 spiny softshell turtles, and other species, all of which must be released into the Thames River, by the end of the season in mid-October.

The rate of success for hatchlings from nests in incubators sits between 89 and 96 per cent, Gillingwater said. “Within 60 days in our incubators, we’ll start seeing hatchlings emerge, but in the wild, that can take 90 to even 100 days.”

The two biggest threats to turtles are habitat destruction and road mortality, Gillingwater said. For spiny softshell turtles – listed as an endangered species both provincially and federally – habitat loss poses the biggest threat to their nests.

Flowing more than 270 kilometres through Southwestern Ontario, the Thames River is home to the largest number of spiny softshell turtles in Canada, more than 500 of them adults.

“Unfortunately, (a turtle’s) biology ecology means that they do not adapt well to having humans nearby. It’s happened over and over again that humans have caused the decline of these turtles. Now it’s time for humans to give back.”

He said there are simple ways the public can help, including making donations to the program, raising awareness, helping turtles cross the road, and not straying from hiking trails.

For more details, visit the authority website by clicking right here.

cleon@postmedia.com

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