Odd-breathing turtle with green algae ‘hair’ faces possible extinction

An Australian river turtle with a distinctive green punk-rock hairstyle, two spikes under its chin and the ability to breathe through its genitals is on a new list of endangered reptiles.

The Mary River turtle, native to Queensland, Australia, has the unusual ability to breathe underwater through specialized glands in its cloaca -- a posterior opening for excretion and reproduction.

This biological function allows the turtle -- referred to as a "butt breather" -- to stay underwater for up to three days. That ability also usually provides these turtles with a vibrant green mohawk, the result of algae growing on their heads because of the extended time spent submerged.

Rikki Gumbs, a reptile biologist at Zoological Society London (ZSL), told CNN that because of the exotic pet trade in the 1960s and '70s, the turtles were often kept as pets and were already at risk of being endangered when they were first recognized as a species in the 1990s.

"The turtle takes a long time to reach sexual maturity, taking up to 25 to 30 years," he said. "As their vulnerability was discovered late, we lost a whole generation due to the pet trade and now their population has become very small."

The turtle comes in at No. 29 on the first list of its kind for reptiles, ZSL's register of Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered creatures. The highest-ranking reptile is the Madagascar big-headed turtle, which is at risk due to human exploitation for food and trade. Joining them are the world's largest sea turtle, the leatherback, and the gharial, a crocodile found in the rivers of Nepal and northern India. Fewer than 250 gharials are still alive.

Both freshwater and sea turtles are under pressure worldwide. For example, in Hainan, an island province in southern China, sea turtle meat and shells are in high demand and in the past 30 years, Hainan has seen a decrease of turtles coming in to lay eggs.

Sea turtles have lived for over 110 million years and are now considered to be endangered, relying on the work of conservationists to prevent their extinction over the next 50 years.

"Releasing the turtle back into the ocean is a very good feeling," Fikiri Kiponda, a marine conservationist, told CNN. "You feel like you've done something tangible and I guess everybody would love to do that... So I guess it's unique work."

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