14 Dec 2022


Written by Dr Kita Ashman, Climate Change Adaptation Ecologist, WWF-Australia

Humans have had their sights set on Mars since the 1600s, with its relatively close proximity to Earth, potential for liquid water — and therefore, life — we have long been bent on exploring our planetary neighbour. Missions to Mars from Earth have been launched with regularity since the 1960s, and despite not landing boots on the ground to date, the idea continues to inspire astronomers, science fiction writers and entrepreneurs alike.

Stay with me here, I promise we’re going to talk about turtles.

Motivations for populating Mars include scientific curiosity, economic interest in its resources, and the possibility that multiplanetary settlements could decrease the likelihood of human extinction. It’s this last point that had me thinking about the parallels between space exploration and turtle translocation.

As an ecologist, I don’t often get to zoom out to this galactic scale. So much of my work happens at the more micro scale, trying to prop species up in strategic locations while we work on un-baking our climate change cake. But, pioneering researchers at the University of Western Australia have inspired some level of gazing in me, maybe not ‘star gazing’ but definitely a lot of ‘swamp gazing’.

Western swamp turtle release with University of Western Australia
Western swamp turtle release with University of Western Australia © Kita Ashman

In 2022, we partnered with Associate Professor Nicki Mitchell and her research team to release Critically Endangered western swamp turtles raised through Perth Zoo’s breeding program into a whole new climate stable swamp. Unlike Mars, the swamp didn’t require terraforming ahead of the release, but it did require some impressive climate change modelling to find those goldilocks sites where the turtles would be not too hot, not too cold but just the right temperature to survive and, hopefully thrive in.

With as few as 80 adult western swamp turtles remaining in the wild, if successful, this project will significantly reduce the risk of extinction by securing a new wild population for this threatened species, as part of Australia’s first climate-induced assisted colonisation.

Dr Kita Ashman holding western swamp turtle
Dr Kita Ashman holding western swamp turtle © Kita Ashman

In August, after attaching small radio transmitters to the turtles which allow us to keep an eye on them after release, we headed out to the swamp. Most people are familiar with what astronauts typically wear into space, but are you familiar with what freshwater ecologists wear into the swamp? Do yourself a favour and look up ‘waders’. It takes a bit over 5,000 hours to get from Earth to Mars, and while it I’m sure it didn’t take quite that long, the walk to the release site in waders definitely didn’t feel short.

Once we’d arrived at the location, I was handed a turtle ready for release. This was the moment of lift off, the moment this animal would be released into the wild and would become a beacon of hope for the species’ persistence.

I knelt down in the swamp, the turtle who was neatly tucked into its shell, in hand. After a moment the turtle started to peek out shyly, just a little at first, but when I lowered it to the water so that its shell kissed the surface, there was this magical moment. You can see they've felt the water and to me, it looked like they inhaled and came awake.

It made me think of those moments when you go to the beach for the first time in a long while and you're so excited to get in the ocean. You run down to the water and do your first dive under, and you feel it, the rush of the ocean gasping all through your body. It was like seeing that happen in their tiny bodies, like a little gasp, a moment of ‘oh! I'm here, I'm home’, then they'd swim off through the reeds.

A western swamp turtle in hand
A western swamp turtle in hand © Kita Ashman

We released 44 turtles that day into their new home. Like humans looking to Mars, these turtles are on the move to hopefully reduce their risk of extinction as a result of the most wicked and pervasive threat we face as a global society - climate change.

As a climate adaptation ecologist, I’m often grappling with the weight of the issues we’re facing when it comes to climate change, but projects like this quite honestly bring me hope.

Hope that there are researchers out there that aren’t afraid of going where no one has previously gone to achieve their conservation missions. They’re shooting for the stars, and I hope there’ll be many generations of western swamp turtles in these climate-stable swamps as a result.

⬇️ Watch the moment the western swamp turtles are released below ⬇️

The western swamp turtle assisted colonisation project is led by the University of Western Australia and supported by DBCA, WWF-Australia and the Friends of the Western Swamp Tortoise.

Want to help protect western swamp turtles? Here’s how you can get involved.

  • Sign the petition and call on the Australian Government to commit to stronger protections for our wildlife and the wild places they call home.
  • Discover if threatened animals need protection in your local area by using WWF’s My Backyard tool, and find out how well they’re being cared for.
  • Tune in to Scat Chat with WWF to learn about the weird and wonderful ways that animal scat is being used to help wildlife conservation.
  • Find out more about how you can get involved to help regenerate Australia’s wildlife.