Threatened: A Green-Haired Turtle That Can Breathe Through Its Genitals
In the debate over saving endangered species, it may be that some should get priority just because of how weird they are.
Take the green-haired turtle. It breathes through its genitals. Not all the time — but after a long time underwater, an alternative way to get oxygen really helps.
The turtle is thirtieth on a new list of reptiles in trouble put out by the Zoological Society of London. The Edge of Existence program at the society looks at the evolutionary trees of animals that are endangered to determine which are most evolutionary distinctive.
Previously, they put out lists for mammals and amphibians. The new list ranks reptiles on a combination of how distinctive and how endangered they are.
Rikki Gumbs and other researchers at the society who worked on the new list wrote a paper explaining how they arrive at the rankings, which was published in the journal PLOS One on Wednesday.
Mr. Gumbs, who is pursuing a Ph.D. jointly at Imperial College London and the zoological society, said that evolutionary distinctiveness is not exactly the same as weirdness, but not far off.
It is a measure of “how alone you are on the tree of life,” he said. Those species do “tend to be weird and wonderful in the way they live.”
The one with the green “mohawk” hair, formally known as the Mary River turtle, is an Australian species that split from other living species about 40 million years ago. It has special organs in its cloaca that allow it to draw oxygen from the water. It can stay underwater for up to three days.
No. 1 on the list is the Madagascar big-headed turtle, according to the Edge site, “sits alone at the end of a branch of the tree of life which stretches back more than 80 million years to the age of the dinosaurs.”
Others in the top five distinctive reptiles on the list are, in order, the Central American river turtle, the Madagascar blind snake, the Chinese alligator and the Chinese crocodile lizard, the only species in its genus and family, with an evolutionary history going back 100 million years. The population is down to about 1,000 individuals.