Endangered tortoise gets ‘energetic’ approach for rehabilitation

Endangered tortoise gets ‘energetic’ approach for rehabilitation

ONE of Australia’s most critically endangered reptiles—the western swamp tortoise (Pseudemydura umbrina) is being researched using ecological energetic models that may also aid other threatened species.


UWA postgraduate student Sophie Arnall is researching the western swamp tortoise (WST), not only in relation to biological factors but also using ecoenergetic modelling.

“Ecoenergetics strengthens our modelling approach. It will help to predict the ideal environments for WST conservation in order to ensure its survival as it faces new challenges associated with climate change,” Ms Arnall says.

The research is focused on exploring suitable environments for tortoises to be translocated under climate change—a process termed ‘assisted colonisation’.

The longevity of the WST (approximate life span of 100 years) and low genetic diversity means the species is unlikely to adapt quickly to climate change.

Ecoenergetic models will help scientists to predict which wetlands will best allow tortoises to survive and reproduce under hotter, drier climates.

Research supervisor Nicola Mitchell says the project is multidisciplinary and involves zoologists, hydrologists, geographers, modellers and super-computers.

Metabolic rates, growth rates, digestive physiology and the thermal physiology of tortoises are also being measured and recorded.

“I basically study their habitat, breeding and feeding patterns to help determine their ability to cope with a variety of climates,” Ms Arnall says.

The research is one of the first to apply mechanistic modelling to identify translocation sites for a species.

“It could also serve as a template for other threatened species,” Ms Arnall says.

Dr Sean Tomlinson, a local expert in ecoenergetics says the quantified, mechanistic approaches such as those being pursued by Ms Arnall and Project SWAMPI* have great scope to optimise conservation of rare and unique fauna.

Project SWAMPI—the South West Assisted Migration for endangered Populations Initiative, is a collaboration between the University of Western Australia the University of Melbourne, Perth Zoo and the Department of Environment and Conservation (now the Department of Parks and Wildlife).

Watch western swamp tortoises hatching:

The Perth Zoo’s successful breeding program has seen more than 800 tortoises bred in captivity and 600 released into the wild.