India: Turtle School

Assam roofed-turtles

Assam roofed turtles

I’m waiting for a ride to the Guwahati Airport in Assam, India, for my flight back to Delhi. In front of me is the mighty Brahmaputra River. One of the largest rivers in the world at over 1,800 miles (2,880 kilometers) long, it is home to the greatest freshwater turtle and tortoise diversity in the world and hosts some of the most endangered and enigmatic turtle species. It has been a great venue for “3rd School of Herpetology,” sponsored by India’s Science and Engineering Council. This short, two-week course is offered to graduate students from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Each class is comprised of approximately 25 students who are studying a variety of different aspects of herpetology; including molecular, cellular, physiological, ecological, and evolutionary biology.

3rd School of Herpetology

3rd School of Herpetology

I, as well as other faculty members from across India and the U.S., gave lectures and laboratory practicals and participated in two short field trips. Our first field trip was to the Assam State Zoo and its botanical garden for some lessons in urban herpetology. This small sanctuary inside the city of Guwatahu offers many local students the chance to get hands-on experience without having to raise funds to travel to distance wildlife refuges.

The second field trip was an overnight visit to Kaziranga National Park, noted for having the greatest density of Indian rhinos in the world. I was taken aback by the beauty and abundance of wildlife in the park during our dawn elephant ride. With over 50 tigers, hundreds of wild water buffalo, as well as the rhinos, it isn’t safe to explore the park by foot.

Brian tries for the perfect photo!

Brian tries for the perfect photo!

After our all-too-short elephant ride, we took a Jeep safari in hopes of finding the endemic Assam roofed turtle Pangshura sylhetensis basking in some of the backwaters of the park. I first saw a picture of this species over 20 years ago and have longed to see this endangered species in the wild. Luckily, we were able to spot groups of adults and juveniles basking on a fallen log protruding from the riverbank. I was smiling from ear to ear after a half hour of photographing the animals through my 400mm telephoto lens. I think the students got a real kick out of watching me snap photo after photo of the same group of turtles, in hopes of getting that one really great shot. I had previously been the butt of their jokes when I failed miserably at drawing on the white board during one of my lectures. They all hoped that my photography skills were going to be better than my drawing skills!

I’m now headed back to my field site in Uttar Pradesh along the Chambal River. I am hoping to see the hatching of the endangered Indian narrowheaded softshell turtle Chitra indica in nests we have been protecting from predators and poachers. These are real giants of the turtle world, bigger than some sea turtles and laying as many as 192 eggs in a single clutch. (You can see Chitra indica in the San Diego Zoo’s gharial exhibit). Since 2007, we have been protecting nests that we find along the Chambal and Ghaghra Rivers (see post India: Life on the Chambal). Last year we were able to hatch almost a thousand turtles!

It is time for me to catch my plane. After a short 3.5-hour flight, I’ll have a long drive from Delhi. It is going to be a long day but well worth it!

Brian Horne is a postdoctoral fellow for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, The Making of a Turtle Biologist.

0 Responses to India: Turtle School

  1. It sounds like you had some amazing field trip experiences, Brian. The picture of the Assam roofed turtles on the log is wonderful! I hope it’s doing well in its native habitat. Thank you for telling us about Chitra indica. I didn’t know it was one of the Gharial exhibit’s turtles, but will surely look for it. Is is one of the huge ones that seem to stay at the bottom of the pond?

  2. What a lovely picture of the turtles, Brian. Good luck with your work and I hope all the other turtles do well.

  3. I agree..the pics of the turtles are cute! I need to ask a question wish someone would answer it….well one day in the middle of the road there was a turtle (don’t know what species) ..I just couldn’t leave it there and get hit so I picked it up to put on the grass towards the man made lake..anyways when I picked up the turtle gushed water on me…or pee’d I have no idea..but it soaked my pants lol

    but does it have a defence mechanism???

    Moderator’s note: That was indeed the turtle’s way of protecting itself, by peeing on you. Little did it know that you meant to help.

  4. Shirley: Yes, the Chitra indica are the large softshell turtles that spend a lot of time at the bottom of the exhibit. They also can be seen in the shallow underwater sand pits. These turtles like to hide under the sand and ambush fish as they swim by. This species has specialized neck bones and muscles that enable it to rapidly thrust its head forward and suck in a large quantity of water, and hopefully a fish!