She and her three male friends are the only four Yangtze softshell turtles alive today, and after having waited since 2008 for her and one of the males to breed naturally without success, their caretakers at Suzhou Zoo in China has now decided to try to inseminate the female and see if it could help save the species from extinction.
Yangtze softshell turtles (Rafetus swinhoei) are about 1 meter long (approximately 39 inches) and weighs between 70-100 kilos (150-220 lb), and are the largest freshwater turtles in the world. Due to hunting and lost habitats this species now needs to rely on humans if they are ever going to recover from the brink of extinction.
Dr. Barbara Durrant, Director of Reproductive Physiology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research explains the situation: “Normal semen parameters for Rafetus are unknown as this was the first attempt to collect and examine sperm from this species. The semen evaluation revealed that approximately half of the sperm were motile.”
The male turtle in China, living with the female, turned out to have damaged sexual organs, which probably happened in a fight several decades earlier. So even if they do their best in trying to procreate, the male turtle is believed to not being capable of inseminating the female on his own.
Getting the number of Yangtze softshell turtles back to a sustainable level for the future is a highly tricky job. With so few individuals the genetic diversity can’t be high, so in time the turtles will face a reduction in the health and robustness of their species, which might also mean they will have a trickier time coping with changes in the climate or in the resources available to them.
While the insemination has already taken place, it won’t be known until in a few weeks time if the procedure was successful, according to Director Chen Daqing of Suzhou Zoo.