Beware of this cute red-eared turtle

The exotic invasive species can finish off a wide range of aquatic species

After the Pink Bloom, an alien flower that choked the Avala Pandi canal at Perambra, yet another invasive species is posing a major threat to the biodiversity of waterbodies in the State. This time, it is a cute red-eared slider turtle, a huge hit with pet lovers.

A few days ago, Adithyan D. Thambi, a Class 6 student of St. Vincent Pallotthi Central School, Kalathode, got a medium-sized turtle while he was fishing in a canal at Kalathode. He posted his catch on Facebook, which was noticed by Sandeep Das, a researcher at the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI). Identifying the turtle, an exotic and major invasive species, he alerted the boy and cautioned them against releasing it back to the waterbody.

Scientifically called Trachemys scripta elegans, the red-eared slider turtle is the latest favourite of pet lovers, especially children, because of its small size and colour, noted T.V. Sajeev, Senior Principal Scientist and Research Coordinator, KFRI.

“The small turtle can even be kept in a match box. But it grows fast. Adult turtles require lots of aquatic plants. They are also omnivores. Once finding it difficult to keep them as they grow bigger, people sometimes release them into waterbodies. This turtle is considered as one of the world’s worst invasive species,” noted Dr. Sajeev.

Illegal in many places

Originated from the area around the Mississippi river and the Gulf of Mexico, they live in still and warm waterbodies such as ponds, lakes, streams, and slow- running rivers. The red-eared slider turtles are considered a major threat to native turtle specials, as they mature fast, grow larger, and produce more offspring, and are very aggressive. They can out-compete native turtles for food, nestling, and basking sites. As they eat plants and animals, they can finish off a wide range of aquatic species, including fish and rare frogs. Studies show that they can also transfer diseases and parasites to native reptile species. In many places such as Australia and the European Union, it is illegal to import and keep these turtles.

The turtle found in the Kalathode canal has been referred to the Nodal Centre for Biological Invasions (NCBI) at KFRI. One more turtle, which was submitted to the Forest Department, has been transferred to the centre.

“The KFRI has been active in alien invasive species research for over a decade now. We had started with the case of the fast spread of an alien invasive climber, Mikania micrantha — the mile-a-minute weed — and went on to conduct the first survey of invasive alien plants in Kerala. We had attended to the case of the Giant African Snail outbreaks, which occurred in more than 200 locations in Kerala during the past five years. Currently, the KFRI has the NCBI, which focusses on restoring landscapes invaded by alien species and which also mounts early detection and rapid control of alien invasions. The NCBI is now trying to prevent the release of the species into the wild,” said KFRI director Syam Viswanath.

The NCBI has started a massive survey and restoration efforts to remove the red-eared slider turtle from the wild. It is also working on discouraging pet shops from selling the species and instructing pet owners not to release them to the wild.

People who spot the turtle can contact NCBI at 0487 2690222.

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