Australia’s next Cane Toad? The turtle pest threatening our shores

Posted on Posted in Ferals, scaly

An interesting news story caught my eye this week – a group of kids were found playing in a suburban Sydney street with a Red-eared slider turtle (Trachemys scripta elegans). Luckily, a passer by recognised the turtle for what it was, and reported it to NSW DPI.

An adult Red-eared Slider Turtle displaying it's tell-tale bright red markings on the side of it's face. (Photo courtesy of Greg Hume)

So what exactly is a red-eared slider and what’s so bad about them?

Red-eared sliders are a species of freshwater turtle, native to the Mississippi Valley in the US. They are known for their distinctively long, sharp claws and the striking red colouring behind their eyes. Although they are deceptively cute (and popular) as babies, they take on a whole new role as they morph into adulthood.

Red-eared slider turtles are one of the most popular pets across the U.S and the U.K, although cute as little hatchlings they have a voracious appetite, and often get dumped when they grow out of their cute phase and they spread rampanatly!

They are recognized as one of the worlds 100 worst invasive alien species, according to the World Conservation Union; based on their serious threat to global biodiversity.

In Australia they are up there with our most feared pest species such as the cane toad, the fox and the rabbit. Yet, I’ll bet most people haven’t even heard of them. Luckily, that’s because they haven’t had the chance to wreak the devastating havoc that other introduced pests have in our country – so far.

Categorized as a Class 1 pest in most states means that the importation, possession and sale of the species is prohibited, and there are heavy penalties for individuals who release the species into the natural environment.

Rightfully so. This turtle has no known predators in Australia, and has a very aggressive temperament. A nasty nature means that Red-eared sliders have the potential to out-compete many of our native freshwater species, like fish, frogs and other turtles, for resources such as food, habitat and nesting sites.  Adults have also been know to prey upon hatchlings of native turtles, and can inflict painful bites to other wildlife. Another adaptation which enhances the Red-eared sliders role as an invader is its ability to breed like crazy! After each mating, females can lay around 30 fertile eggs per clutch; and continue to lay up to five clutches per year. Add to the mix, the ability of these turtles to spread deadly parasites and diseases among our native species – and you’ve got one perfect pest.

The species will compete aggressively with other turtles (even with it's own species) for prime basking locations - often nosing out it's weaker competitors (i.e. native turtles, lizards, water birds etc.). Photo courtesy of www.petwatch.net

With confirmed reports of this species in urban and rural environments of QLD, ACT and NSW; and in the wild in VIC and WA, let’s hope we don’t allow this species the chance to become established in our waters.

Click here for more information, and some great examples of how to identify the Red-eared slider from our native species of freshwater turtle. Sightings can be reported to the National Animal Pest hotline: 1800 084 881, or your local DPI office.

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