Turtle power

Keepers at ZSL London Zoo have given a home to four rescued turtles with heads so large they can’t pull them into their shells! 

A keeper holds a big-headed turtle at ZSL London Zoo

The four aptly named big-headed turtles (Platysternon megacephalum) arrived at the Zoo at the end of 2018, after being rescued from smugglers trying to illegally import them into Canada and have been settling in behind the scenes ever since – in the care of the Zoo’s expert herpetology team.  

Now, one of the surprisingly charismatic turtles - named Lady Triệu by keepers after a famous Vietnamese warrioress - has moved into a new exhibit in the Zoo’s Reptile House, giving visitors the chance to come face-to-face with the unusual reptile – the only one of her kind in a UK zoo. 

ZSL senior reptile keeper Daniel Kane said: “When we heard that these incredible turtles were in need of a new home we began making plans to welcome them to the Reptile House; we felt they had a lot to teach our visitors about the dangers facing reptiles and amphibians in the wild and knew we had the expertise to give them the specialised care they need.”

Using information gathered from their extensive work with reptiles and amphibians in Vietnam to recreate the turtle’s new home, ZSL London Zoo’s keepers made sure their new home has rocky areas to explore and aquatic foliage to shelter in. 

“Lady Triệu has taken to her new home like a turtle to water, and we have been watching her closely as she’s busied herself exploring every inch of the aquatic abode,” explained Dan.   

“These turtles’ heads are so large that unlike others they can’t retract them into their shells; to compensate, nature has given them armour plating from head to tail and a very sharp beak to fend off predators - plus a feisty attitude to go with it! 

“Big-headed turtles may not be conventionally cute with their disproportionately large heads and whip-like tails, but they represent a vitally important and unique branch of the evolutionary tree and have so much to teach us about animal adaptions. There is literally no other species like them on earth.”

Hailing from the upper mountainous regions of Central China to mainland Southeast Asia, big-headed turtles are threatened by hunting for their meat and the international pet trade and are classified as Endangered on the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species.

A close-up of a big-headed turtle at ZSL London Zoo

They’re ranked No.18 on ZSL’s EDGE of Existence reptile list, which puts unique and threatened species at the forefront of conservation attention - and are part of a new collaborative conservation initiative aiming to reintroduce rescued big-headed turtles back into the wild. 

ZSL’s curator of reptiles and amphibians, Ben Tapley, explained: “We work with the Asian Turtle Program of Indo Myanmar Conservation, who help to rehabilitate the hundreds of big-headed turtles seized by local authorities that are currently housed at the Turtle Conservation Center in Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam - with the aim of releasing them back into a suitable wild area. 

“ZSL, with our partners, has been helping to implement a vital health-screening protocol at the centre, so these turtles can be safely released and monitored – helping to safeguard wildlife at reintroduction sites from the spread of any pathogens that may be carried by the rescued reptiles. 

“We are also working with the local communities to help them understand how vitally important these amazing animals are, so that together we can bring them back from the brink.” 

The three other rescued turtles – one female and two males - are being looked after behind-the-scenes at the Zoo as the species are highly territorial and need to be housed in separate enclosures. 

Come face-to-face with reptiles and amphibians from all over the world at ZSL London Zoo!

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