Seasonal and diel dive performance and behavioral ecology of the bimodally respiring freshwater turtle Myuchelys bellii of eastern Australia

Abstract

Freshwater turtles have an extraordinary physiological ability to endure dive times that can range from days to months using aquatic respiration. In cryptodires (e.g., white-lipped mud turtle Kinosternon leucostomum) aquatic respiration is via buccal or cutaneous routes whereas in pleurodires (e.g., Fitzroy River turtle Rheodytes leukops), it is achieved primarily via specialized cloacal bursae. This study records the voluntary diving performance of the western sawshelled turtle Myuchelys bellii in Bald Rock Creek from the temperate zone of the Murray–Darling Basin of Australia. Myuchelys bellii has a moderately specialized cloacal bursae morphology compared to other pleurodiran turtles and displays impressive dive durations spanning more than 15 days during the winter months. This is attributed to its ability to maintain aerobic dives via its cloacal bursae and low water temperatures in winter. Myuchelys bellii seasonal and diel diving performance, including its crepuscular habit, is comparable to R. leukops and Elseya albagula. This study also recorded the first aquatic hibernation at depth (>3 m) for any freshwater turtle; and only the second pleurodire to demonstrate aquatic hibernation as an overwintering strategy. Observed thermoregulation behavior in M. bellii is believed to provide multiple life history benefits.

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful to many volunteers who provided assistance in the field. I thank Col Limpus and Duncan Limpus for laparoscopy procedures to determine the experimental turtles’ sex and maturity. I also particularly thank Rod Hobson, Michael Wood, Jolene McLellan, John Cowburn, Neal Holmes, Ian Elms, Bill Goble and David McCarthy. I also thank Karl Vernes and anonymous reviewers for their comments on the draft manuscript. Matt Gordos deserves special mention for allowing me access to his custom dive analysis program. The University of New England Research Grant supported this study. The Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) provided housing and staff support for the fieldwork undertaken in Girraween National Park. Field procedures were undertaken in accordance with DERM Animal Ethics Committee (EPA2006/11/20–22).

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Correspondence to Darren P. Fielder.

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Fielder, D.P. Seasonal and diel dive performance and behavioral ecology of the bimodally respiring freshwater turtle Myuchelys bellii of eastern Australia. J Comp Physiol A 198, 129–143 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00359-011-0694-x

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Keywords

  • Aquatic respiration
  • Basking
  • Chelid
  • Cloacal bursae
  • Hibernation