In Australia's Northern Territory—the habitat brought to life within the National Aquarium's Australia: Wild Extremes exhibition—Northern red-faced turtles aren't particularly rare. Their conservation status is of least concern according to the Atlas of Living Australia, and their populations seem stable within their geographic range. Here in the U.S., however, red-faced turtles—which derive their name from distinctive, mask-like red markings—are found primarily in aquariums and zoos.
At the National Aquarium, these turtles have made their homes in several habitats within Australia: Wild Extremes since it opened in 2005, and Aquarium herpetologists encourage them to breed about once every three years. This allows our team to create groups of turtles that are raised together and meet developmental milestones at the same time, which simplifies their care.
When red-faced turtle eggs are laid at the Aquarium, they are collected and incubated behind the scenes of our Australia: Wild Extremes habitats, where staff carefully watch and wait through the two-month incubation period. Using a technique known as candling, in which the tiny turtle eggs are backlit in an otherwise dark space, herpetologists can get a glimpse of what’s happening in the fragile eggs to check for fertility and track the development of the turtles. Talented National Aquarium photographers joined the keepers and captured the turtles' delicate forms within the eggs three weeks before they began to hatch.
As the turtles began to emerge, Aquarium herpetologists were delighted to find themselves tasked with the care of a host of healthy hatchlings—twelve in all! The turtles weighed just a few adorable grams on that first day, and each received a dot of non-toxic, colored paint on their shell. This allows herpetologists to differentiate the tiny turtles, monitor them and track their health and growth. The hatchlings live together off exhibit and receive direct attention from our team daily.
The team places special emphasis on the turtles' interest in eating. While in their eggs before hatching, the turtles derived nutrition from a nutrient-rich yolk sac. Some of the yolk sac may still be present after they hatch, so it can take a couple days—sometimes even weeks—until a hatchling is hungry and eager to eat on their own. Their keepers are careful to track each individual's appetite and preferences, and each turtle is weighed and measured every few days.
The turtle hatchlings will continue to live off-exhibit until they are about half of their adult size of approximately 10 inches—a process that can take about several years. This timeline both ensures the turtles' general health and allows them to reach a size at which they are no longer vulnerable to other species within their habitat space.
Young adult male and female Northern red-faced turtles are similar in appearance, but as females age, they might develop what is known to herpetologists as a "boofhead." In turtles, the term, which comes from Australian slang, probably for "buffalo head," describes a female who develops an especially outsized head and powerful jaw. The females that have been observed with this characteristic are presumed to be of advanced age, and to have a greater ability to feed upon things like mussels and clams.
A few of these turtles hatched in June 2021 will spend their entire lives here at the National Aquarium, but others may make their way elsewhere, where they will act as Australian ambassadors, engaging guests at other accredited, respected aquariums and zoos. If you find yourself in Australia: Wild Extremes, keep an eye out for the Northern red-faced turtles!