Researchers Inseminate World’s Last Remaining Female Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle

posted: 05/28/15
by: Danny Clemens
Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei)
Gerald Kuchling

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) is teetering precariously on the brink of extinction. Only four of the turtles are known to exist: three males and one female, all kept in captivity.

Two of the turtles, a male and a female, are located in the Suzhou Zoo in China. When zoo officials attempted to arrange a courtship between the two century-old turtles in 2008, the pair was not able to produce viable eggs. Officials believe that the male's reproductive organs were damaged decades ago, and have since turned to artificial insemination as a last-ditch attempt to save the species.

Never before have researchers attempted to artificially inseminate any species of softshell turtle; other insemination efforts with different species of turtle have not shown promising results.

Faced with the devastating consequences of inaction, however, an international team of scientists from China, Australia and the United States have gone through with the procedure and are hoping for the best.

Harvesting the semen was risky: researchers were forced to sedate the century-old male turtle and induce ejaculation through the use of electrical impulses, a procedure considered risky due to the turtle's old age. Luckily, both turtles recovered from the operation, and are now in relatively good health.

"The conservation world will once again be holding its collective breath until we know if this was successful. The optimism we felt back in 2008 when the pair was mating and laying eggs has slowly faded as reality sank in that this pair would not breed without intervention," said Rick Hudson, President of the Turtle Survival Alliance, who facilitated the effort.

The Yangtze giant softshell is the most critically endangered turtle in the world. Its decline has been attributed to habitat destruction and over-harvesting.

Click here for more information from the Wildlife Conservation Society

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