Oh Snap! A new turtle has been described

It’s a case of a mistaken identity for a population of snapping turtles in northwestern Queensland which have now been officially identified as a new species thanks to the help of Queensland Museum scientists.

The freshwater turtle, Elseya oneiros, commonly known as the Gulf Snapping Turtle, lives in deep water pools in the Nicholson and Gregory Rivers that flow into the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Gulf Snapping Turtle, Elseya oneiros. Image credit: John Cann

Until recently, it was thought they were the same species as a fossil turtle, Elseya lavarackorum, which was excavated in the early 1990s from a Pleistocene Terrace Site on Riversleigh Station.

But a study led by American turtle researcher and enthusiast, Mehdi Joseph-Ouni, with the assistance of Queensland Museum herpetologists Patrick Couper and Dr Andrew Amey has proven, it is in fact a new species.

Mr Couper said the study showed several differences between the Riversleigh fossil and the modern snapping turtle, including size.

“The fossil specimen Elseya lavarackorum can now be regarded as an extinct Pleistocene species, inhabiting rivers in the Gulf of Carpentaria less than 2.6 million years ago,” Mr Couper said.

“With a shell that can reach up to 35 centimetres, the Gulf Snapper is most closely related to snapping turtles in coastal regions of eastern Queensland.

“The top of the head is encased in a thick, horny shield and large females have a pale face.”

The snapping turtles are known to feed on fallen fruit from cluster figs that overhang rivers along with algae, freshwater mussels and aquatic insect larvae.

The description of Elseya oneiros has recently been published in the Batagur Monographs.

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