Boston ecosystems under threat of invasion from Chinese turtles

Alarms are sounding across New England that a new invasive species is trying to take root. Two soft-shelled turtles from China were found on Wollaston Beach in Quincy, Massachusetts. Experts agree that these bizarre looking creatures could pose a threat to local bay and ocean ecosystems.

“It could cause major changes in the ecosystem. None of the animals in that ecosystem are adapted to a predator of that size. It eats large amounts of small fish, mussels, clams and insects,” said Nigella Hillgarth, a zoologist as well as the New England Aquarium’s president and CEO.

The marsh turtles are commonly raised for food in China. The New England Aquarium, who first identified the threat, believes that the creatures were released into the ocean after being bought for consumption.

“It’s very likely that it was imported from China into the U.S., because there’s no real outlet here for a turtle like that,” said Dr. Charles Innis, a turtle expert and head veterinarian at New England Aquarium. “I’ve seen it offered for sale here as a pet or as food, but never out on the beach.”

Authorities urge citizens not to release foreign species into the wild and to report any turtle sightings to local animal control.

“In general, a lot of examples of species of turtles have moved around the planet and have ended up causing problems in new environments,” said Dr. Innis. “Sometimes they can compete with the native species and could even have the potential to spread diseases to native species. A lot of native turtle species are endangered at this point, so we don’t need another layer on top of that.”

“The concern is that if it can establish a population, it actually can survive our winter,” said Hillgarth.

The turtle typically lives in the warm, brackish waters of Chinese wetlands. Although endangered in the wild, as many as 300 million are raised in captivity every year for the local food market.

The reptiles have invaded several ecosystems and wreaked havoc including in the Philippines, in Hawaii, and in New York.

The greenish-brown turtles are between 7 and 15 inches long with a leathery shell and snout nose.

“The thing that’s remarkable,” said Hillgarth. “It has a really long snout, and can extend its neck. It’s almost like a little periscope in the water that allows it to breathe. It has this pointy face, and you immediately know it’s something very different.”

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