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Text and photos by Nick Baker, unless credited to others.
Copyright ゥ Ecology Asia 2024







Roti Island Snake-necked Turtle

Species : Chelodina mccordi
Maximum carapace length : 19.7 cm (MCZ 176730).

Chelodina mccordi, or 'Roti Island Snake-necked Turtle', is one of the world's rarest freshwater turtles. This relatively small species was first described by A.G. Rhodin in 1994, after a study of historical specimens from the island of Roti (or 'Rote') in eastern Indonesia.

Between 2003 and 2006, reports and sightings of the presence of closely-related turtles on the larger, neighbouring island of Timor began to draw the attention of researchers (Kuchling et al, 2007; McCord et al, 2007): specimens were acquired, and then formally described and named.

As of 2020, Reptile Database recognise two subspecies of this rare turtle: i) Chelodina mccordi mccordi which occurs in 2 lakes on Roti Island, Indonesia and ii) Chelodina mccordi timorensis in Lake Ira Lalalo, Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor, which was once part of Indonesia).

The climate of both Roti and Timor is classified as 'tropical savannah'. Lakes and other waterbodies, such as rice paddies, which support this turtle are typically seasonal, shrinking in area during dry periods. For example, Google Earth images of Lake Ira Lalalo on Timor-Leste show that this elongated waterbody shrinks from 15 km in length during wet periods to less than 3 km long during dry periods. The lake is surrounded by waterlogged grassland and swamps, with significant human impact.

Chelodina mccordi has a grey-brown, flattened, rounded carapace and an extremely long neck (which can be twisted to reach any part of the turtle's body). Its head is elongated and somewhat flattened, and its nostrils are small and dorsally located. There are rounded tubercles on the neck, and the iris is white.

When withdrawing into their shells, snake-necked turtles must twist their necks laterally (Fig. 3), however one side of the neck remains vulnerable to predators. Thus, rather than employing a defensive strategy, these turtles may twist their neck backwards to bite potential attackers. Potential predators in Lake Ira Lalalo may include the Estuarine Crocodile Crocodylus porosus. There is a sizable population of this crocodile in the lake (Kaiser et al, 2011).

Some species of Chelodina are fish-eaters, however the diet and detailed ecology of Chelodina mccordi appears unstudied.

Shown here are images of an example from Lake Ira Lalalo photographed during the first herpetological survey of Timor-Leste in 2004-2009. The turtle was for offered for sale to surveyors by a local resident but, rightly, was not purchased (Kaiser et al, 2011).

Chelodina mccordi is at risk from over-exploitation - locally it is eaten and is used in cultural practices, and is also under pressure from the international pet trade.

Within the combined region of Southeast Asia and New Guinea, Chelodina mccordi is the westernmost example of the genus. Four other species of Chelodina occur in southern and western New Guinea, and additional species occur in Australia.

Figs 1 and 2 : Example of Chelodina mccordi timorensis,  from Lake Ira Lalalo, Timor-Leste (elevation 300 metres).

Fig 3 : Front view, showing how the head and neck are twisted and withdrawn sideways into the shell for protection.

Fig 4 : Typical human-impacted habitat at the margins of Lake Ira Lalalo, comprising flooded grassland dotted with occasional trees.

All photos thanks to Hinrich Kaiser.

References :

Kaiser H, Carvalho VL, Ceballos J, Freed P, Heacox S, Lester B, Richards SJ, Trainor CR, Sanchez C, O担hea M (2011) The herpetofauna of Timor-Leste: a first report. ZooKeys 109: 1986. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.109.1439

Kuchling G, Rhodin AGJ, Ibarrondo BR, Trainor CR (2007) A new subspecies of the snakeneck turtle Chelodina mccordi from Timor-Leste (East Timor) (Testudines: Chelidae). Chelonian Conservation Biology 6: 213222.

McCord WP, Joseph-Ouni M, Hagen C. (2007) A new species of Chelodina (Testudines: Chelidae) from eastern Timor Island (East Timor). Reptilia (GB) 52: 5357

Rhodin, AG. (1994). Chelid turtles of the Australasian Archipelago: II. A new species of Chelodina from Roti Island, Indonesia. Breviora (498): 1-31

Fig 1
ゥ  Hinrich Kaiser
Fig 2
ゥ  Hinrich Kaiser
Fig 3
ゥ  Hinrich Kaiser
Fig 4
ゥ  Hinrich Kaiser

Fig 4  by Hinrich Kaiser  licensed under Attribution 3.0 Unported License (CC BY 3.0)