Dogged Turtle Search

A trio of turtle-sniffing dogs – and some clever detective work – has enabled researchers to discover where a rare Vietnamese turtle makes its home in the wild. The find could help preserve the endangered species, which had been known only from Asian markets.

Asia’s turtles are facing a severe “crisis” due to overhunting, “and most species are now at risk of extinction,” report Tri Ly and Huy Duc Hoang of Vietnam’s University of Science in Ho Chi Minh City, and Bryan L. Stuart of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, in Biological Conservation. Adding to the problem is that some species are known only from markets and have never been studied in the wild. For instance, the Vietnamese box turtle (Cuora picturata) – a species that scientists first recognized in 1998 – only had been seen for sale in southern Vietnam.

To focus their search for where the hefty, domed reptiles were coming from, the researchers looked at genetic data and tracked patterns in the turtle trade. Eventually, they focused on the Langbian Plateau of southern Vietnam. Then, they launched three field surveys in 2010 and 2011, assisted by three dogs owned by local villagers. “Dogs are commonly used by hunters in Southeast Asia, and are more efficient than humans at locating terrestrial turtles,” the team notes.

The human-canine partnership worked, turning up eight of the rare turtles. “All were located by the dogs on the floor of broadleaf evergreen mixed with bamboo forest,” the researchers report. “Unfortunately, large areas of forest on the plateau are being rapidly converted to coffee plantations and other agricultural lands, and local residents harvest and sell the species to commercial traders. Only one of the three localities… is currently protected.”

Still, the discovery “offers some hope in the ‘Asian turtle crisis,’” they write. And it suggests that “the mysterious origins” of other turtles known only from markets could be revealed with some focused effort. For instance, three other species of very rare Asian box turtles, — Zhou’s box turtle (C. zhoui), McCord’s box turtle (C. mccordi), and the Yunnan box turtle (C. yunnanensis), “are known to scientists only by turtles bearing price tags.” David Malakoff | April 25, 2011

Source: Ly, T., Hoang, H., & Stuart, B. (2011). Market turtle mystery solved in Vietnam. Biological Conservation DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2011.03.004

Image Tri Ly, courtesy Bryan Stuart