by Heather Lowe 

Rafetus Lu Shunqing.WCS

In early July, Gerald Kuchling, the chelonian reproductive biologist who led a team that attempted artificial insemination on the world’s last known female Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), returned to the Suzhou Zoo in China to evaluate the eggs. Since the procedure was attempted, the female had laid two clutches of eggs, but sadly Gerald found that all 89 eggs that he candled (a technique that illuminates the inside of the egg to determine fertility) were infertile.

There remains reason for optimism, however, as the female will likely lay another 1-2 clutches this year. Never one to give up hope, Gerald reports that he now has a better idea how to improve the chances of success, and he will try and repeat the procedure in October which may improve chances to get fertile eggs next year.

Since the initial attempt in May, Gerald has worked with other turtle biologists and reproductive specialists in Europe, trying to develop techniques for storing softshell turtle semen. He also still plans to investigate the internal anatomy of female softshells in more detail and hopes of being able to more accurately direct the next attempt at artificial insemination.

Turtle Survival Alliance President Rick Hudson said, “There are no how-to manuals. We are learning as we go. Sure, we’re disappointed but we’re committed to a successful outcome. There’s no turning back now.”

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle is the most critically endangered turtle in the world, with only four in existence. Its status in the wild has long been recognized as grim, but extinction risk now is believed higher than ever. Much of its demise has been attributed to over-harvesting and habitat degradation.

Photo Credit: Lu Shunqing/WCS