Dispatches from the field: Following the Sulawesi Forest Turtle

Note, this field work formed the basis for Angela’s Masters thesis.

By Angela Simms

I wasn’t sure what to expect on the first night searching for the Sulawesi Forest Turtle. As little as 30 minutes into the stream walk, our local guide spots a large male perched on the edge of the clear shallow flowing stream, the yellow head illuminating brightly from our head torch. The first of the Critically Endangered turtles to be part of my radio telemetry project. Within two weeks we manage to pluck up twenty adults with even sex ratios – a field researchers dream when fate works out in your timelines favour. What was even more amazing was the ease of finding these Forest Turtles, merely just stumbling across turtles that were sitting in the shallow streams. I was fortunate to observe many turtles in this stream system but I know that this isn’t the case for most of their range.

I had read how intensive the deforestation was throughout Indonesia, threatening much of its incredibly unique biodiversity. Being within Wallacea, Sulawesi is home to a high proportion of endemic species, including the Sulawesi Forest Turtle (Leucocephalon yuwonoi). In addition to deforestation, it is recognised there is an Asian turtle crisis largely driven by overexploitation. Placed within it’s own monotypic genus, Leucocephalon, it would be a significant loss to lose a species and genus all together. What is scarier is how little we know about Leucocephalon. I found it baffling this species lays just one large egg per clutch – oh boy – what a strange reproductive strategy right there.

I was determined to get some good ecological data that will hopefully help towards effective conservation management with the guidance and support from my supervisors. I went out and tracked the turtles 6 days a week over 4 months, mornings and evenings with the occasional hot afternoon track. I could sense my brain turning part turtle, starting to get a grasp of each of their behavioural traits and understanding what refuges they seem to like. Treks in the daily 30°C (86°F) and ~90% humidity, never have I sweated so much in my life. I realised the waterproof surveying paper wasn’t just for rain, it was also to accommodate for my dripping sweat as I’m writing. Fieldwork could not have been achieved without the help and company of my amazing field team. My research assistant, Fatmah, a young and enthusiastic graduate and our guide Warimin, previously a local turtle collector turned conservationist. Fieldwork was also combined with amazing Indonesian food, a few local weddings, plenty of herping, many trips to the surrounding beaches and waterfalls, and experiences I am grateful for!

Understanding the Sulawesi Forest Turtle doesn’t just stop at my Masters project. On my last visit to Tadulako University with collaborators Dr Fadly Tantu and Dr Jusri Nilawati, I was excited to hear of three of their Masters students conducting further studies on the species. Combined with the Turtle Survival Alliance’s ex situ efforts, I’m thrilled to know this ecological void of understanding the Sulawesi Forest Turtle has a wonderful, diverse team filling in the gaps.

The next step is to convert my Masters thesis to a paper. A draft paper is currently being revised. Watch this space!

Thanks to the Turtle Survival Alliance and Macquarie University for funding and support. Many thanks to all my collaborators and field assistants, all of which are acknowledged in my thesis.

You can follow Angela and see her photos from the field on Instagram and Twitter.

Dr. Birgit Szabo talks lizard smarts!

Birgit recently gave a public lecture about her research on lizard cognition at a mini-conference “The Future of Herpetology, Inspiring Women and Forgotten Frogs: A conference promoting women’s voices in herpetology”. Watch her talk (below) and find out more about Birgit and her work on her web page.

Dr. Birgit Szabo talking about . . . → Read More: Dr. Birgit Szabo talks lizard smarts!

Blue-tongue lizards are born smart, at least as smart as their parents!

By Birgit Szabo

As children we have much to learn after we are born. We learn to walk, to talk, to develop our social skills, and when we start school we learn how to read, write and do maths.

​Humans, and many other animals, are considered altricial, meaning that juveniles need to be taken . . . → Read More: Blue-tongue lizards are born smart, at least as smart as their parents!

Australian Geographic features frilled lizard work!

The latest edition of Australian Geographic features the iconic Australian Frill-necked Lizard (Chlamydosaurus kingii). A big part of the article, written by John Pickrell, features our own Christian Alessandro Perez-Martinez! And the top of the page features his photo (reproduced at left). Well done Christian! Have a read of the article.

The paper, . . . → Read More: Australian Geographic features frilled lizard work!

Hot off the press! An invasive lizard species can learn from other species

Check out our new paper on social learning in the Italian wall lizard, Podarcis sicula. This work formed part of Isabel Damas’ PhD thesis, and it was a huge effort! The question of what makes an invasive species successful compared to other species, that may fail to gain a foothold in a new location, . . . → Read More: Hot off the press! An invasive lizard species can learn from other species

What tree skinks know about change: A story in colour and shape

Note from Martin Whiting: This blog posts details a chapter of Birgit Szabo’s PhD recently published in Animal Behaviour and represents an enormous amount of work. Birgit did a 9-month cognition experiment, which could be the longest lizard cognition experiment thus far conducted. (Let us know if it isn’t!) The work is in collaboration . . . → Read More: What tree skinks know about change: A story in colour and shape

Come on a tour of The Lizard Lab

This is a behind-the-scenes video tour of the lab. We will show you our research facilities, some of our study animals, and our lizard enclosures. This video was entirely put together by Cooper Van De Wal. Cooper is a student at Macquarie and volunteers in the lab. He also has his own, highly successful . . . → Read More: Come on a tour of The Lizard Lab

Tree skinks go to school: The complexities of social learning in lizards

By: Fonti Kar & Julia Riley

“Never study an animal that is smarter than you” – Dr Martin Whiting

An adult female tree skink after performing the discrimination task we used to quantify their learning ability – she successfully removed the blue lid from this dish and accessed the food reward . . . → Read More: Tree skinks go to school: The complexities of social learning in lizards

Up for a fight or doing a runner, for a lizard it could be in their genes

Animals often instinctively assess their environment, and display innate behavioural responses. For example, many newly born reptiles and fish know how to respond to predators – knowing when to “fight” and when to “flee” – right after hatching out of their eggs! Innate behavioural responses, especially in times of peril, may be the difference . . . → Read More: Up for a fight or doing a runner, for a lizard it could be in their genes

The Bluetongue interviews

There was some interest in our recent paper on bluetongue lizards (blueys) and why they have this amazing blue tongue, which is actually a UV-blue tongue. (See our previous blog post.)

Here is an interview from ABC news:

Helen Shield interviews Martin Whiting on ABC radio, Hobart (nation wide). 11 June 2018. http://whitinglab.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/ABC_radio_11.6.2018-1.mp3

. . . → Read More: The Bluetongue interviews