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Tortoises of Australia

Pig-nose Turtle - Carettochelys Insculpta

Distribution -
This freshwater turtle is undoubtedly the most interesting of all Australian species. It is unique among the freshwater Chelonians in that its limbs are in the form of flippers, resembling those of the marine turtles. It is the sole member of the family Carettochelyidae and until recently was believed to be restricted to the south coast of New Guinea, where it is known by the common names Fly River or Pitted-shell Turtle

The first specimen recorded from Australia was found in the Daly River, Northern Territory, in 1969. It has since been discovered in a number of the coastal rivers of the Northern Territory and, with all probability, it may be found to occur in many rivers along the north coast of Australia

A Pig-nose Turtle (Carettochelys Insculpta) caught
on a fishing line.

Description -
The main distinguishing feature of this tortoise is its flippers. Hatchlings have serrations around the rim of the carapace and a high vertebral keel. Both characteristics slowly diminish with age, although traces of the keel may still be evident in a turtle measuring 25cm. It is estimated that the carapace may reach a maximum length of at least 60cm.

Unlike the Australian tortoises, the carapace of the Pig-nose Turtle is not covered with horny laminae, but with a thin, fragile skin which is easily broken when the turtle comes into contact with a rough or hard surface. A turtle damaged in this manner responds favourably to treatment and quickly returns to its original condition.

A Pig-nose Turtle (Carettochelys Insculpta) showing
how head retracts into carapace.

Habits -
Care should be exercised when handling Pig-nose Turtles as they are often aggressive when first collected. With its powerful jaws, an adult specimen is capable of inflicting a very severe bite.

The nesting habits of this freshwater turtle have yet to be recorded in Australia, but will probably prove similar to those observed in New Guinea. Ken Slater, in Australian Territories (August 1961), states that the eggs are laid in May, but this conflicts with many other observations, and could indicate that there is more than one nesting each year.

A juvenile Pig-nose Turtle (Carettochelys Insculpta).

The Pig-nose Turtle prefers stretches of water with a sandy bottom where it can bury its vulnerable undersurface when threatened. Juveniles kept in captivity have been observed to practise this extensively. Once settled into the sand of the aquarium, they would bury their rear legs and then attempt to cover the carapace by flicking sand onto their backs with their two front flippers.

The relationship between the Pig-nose Turtle and the sea is not known. It has been caught in river estuaries but this may be a seasonal activity. It has been suggested that the Australian population of this species is the result of a recent migration from many New Guinea, but many consider this unlikely.