Mountainous and tropical Papua New Guinea is bursting with a diverse and exotic biological ecosystem.
Since 2012, ExxonMobil has partnered with Australia’s University of Canberra and the Biological Research Institute of the University of Papua New Guinea to study and protect a threatened turtle species known locally as “Piku.” But they didn’t expect to discover an entirely new species of freshwater turtle, Elseya rhodini, in the process!
The new turtle is one of three distantly related species — Elseya novaeguineae, Elseya schultzei and the new Elseya rhodini — found across the island of New Guinea.
“The three species evolved from a common ancestor between 17 and 19 million years ago,” said researcher Arthur Georges from the University of Canberra. “These ages are quite remarkable and came as a surprise, because it means these turtles have together seen the full geological development of the island of New Guinea,” he added.
The turtle was identified as a new species, distinct from its distant relatives, by the use of genetic indicators and other data. The research showed that the species was distributed across much of the island. Georges said it was “a very pretty turtle” and that one of its distinguishing features was its reddish coloration.
The newly discovered turtle species is part of the Chelidae family of side-neck turtles, which are only found in South America and Australia, along with Papua New Guinea,Timor and Rote in Indonesia.
The program does more than just protect important turtle species, though. Some of the local awareness efforts the Piku Project supports include environmental lessons in schools along the Kikori River and a program for students and locals to serve as ambassadors of the program and monitor consumption of the turtles. So the program is also about building community awareness of the need for environmental sustainability in Papua New Guinea. And maybe discovering more turtles!
Image credit: ExxonMobil/PNG