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Mexican conservationists battle to save rare two-headed turtle

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A rare two-headed turtle lived to be nearly four years old thanks to the diligent work of Mexican authorities.
A rare two-headed turtle lived to be nearly four years old thanks to the diligent work of Mexican authorities. Photo by Edgar Reina.

By Stacey Venzel

In Mexico, the government protects sea turtles with militia members patrolling the coast to thwart wildlife infractions. However, this year’s dawning of spring announced Mexico and the U.S.’s decision to downgrade the green sea turtle from endangered to threatened.

Thanks to the work of Mexican conservationists like Edgar Reina (left) and Fernando Mier, this 3-year-old two-headed turtle has survived in captivity. Photo by Edgar Reina.
Thanks to the work of Mexican conservationists like Edgar Reina (left) and Fernando Mier, this 3-year-old two-headed turtle has survived in captivity. Photo by Edgar Reina.

Three-and-a-half years ago, a two-headed green turtle hatchling was given a chance to survive when it emerged at a hatchery in Campeche, Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula. Without a call to protect the species, the government-run sanctuary might not have existed.

Green sea turtles swim throughout warm ocean waters around the globe. Like other sea turtle species, the eggs are revered for their nourishment and alleged aphrodisiac qualities, especially in Asia and Latin America. Even with stringent conservation laws enacted, turtle egg harvesting and adult hunting still occurs.

Hatcheries along the Gulf of Mexico coastline are run by La Secretaría de Medioambiental de México, the equivalent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department. When nesting females come ashore to lay their eggs, the nests are relocated to safe havens. The government agency works in conjunction with various conservation organizations but seeks aid from the armed forces in dangerous regions. In Campeche, La Secretaría de Marina Armada de México, or the Mexican Navy, was asked to help.

At the hatcheries, eggs incubate under the guarded, watchful eyes of government biologists. When the turtles hatch, they are released at sea by a team of researchers, provided the hatchlings are healthy enough. The U.S. has “Head Start” programs that function in a similar manner.

When a rare Siamese twin hatchling emerged at a hatchery more than three years ago, reptile specialists quickly realized the animal was not able to swim against ocean currents. However, they opted to provide the best quality of life they could for it in captivity.

Some locals, like veterinarian and herpetologist Edgar Reina, are hard at work trying to give this reptile and others like it a fighting chance. Reina has had a difficult time containing his excitement surrounding the medical marvel.

“This is a new case,” he said. “I’ve seen various turtles born like this but they don’t usually survive, and never this long.”

For the past few years, the animal has been housed in shallow water in a tank at the Campeche facility. The two heads function independently, but the set of two front and two back flippers do not sync with each other. Now, as the reptile ages, its longevity is being questioned.

Joined along the vertebrae, which is fused with a turtle’s carapace, the creature is exhibiting spinal deformities. Reina’s expertise was called upon to assist with radiographs and blood work that would determine the turtle’s overall health and prognosis.

In the wild, a two-headed turtle unable to swim would not have made it to sea, but a group of well-intentioned humans decided to give an endangered species a chance. As poachers and severe weather patterns continue to threaten a species that co-existed with dinosaurs, it is the work of humans like this that are reversing the catastrophic consequence mankind has had on these ancient creatures.

 

SOURCES:

Daley, Jason, “Green Sea Turtles Are No Longer Endangered in Florida and Mexico,” Smithsonian, April 16, 2016, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/green-sea-turtles-come-endangered-list-florida-mexico-180958677/?no-ist.

Venzel, Stacey, “Fisher and Finn are Growing Up,” Turtle Hospital, September 8, 2012, http://www.turtlehospital.org/current-patients/fisher-finn-are-growing-up/.

 
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