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Museum scientist helps solve market turtle mystery in Vietnam

Turtles are harvested and traded throughout Asia for food, traditional medicine and pets. The demand for turtles, especially strong in China, now threatens the majority of Asian species with extinction in the wild, a phenomenon known as the “Asian turtle crisis.” But many species are known to science mostly or only from animals found in commercial trade — earning them the nickname “market turtles.” Bryan Stuart, curator of herpetology for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, reports the wild discovery of one such species in the journal Biological Conservation — a major step in advancing Asian turtle conservation efforts. 

Cuora picturata turtle photo by Tri LyIn order to conserve threatened Asian turtle species, scientists must first identify their likely habitat. Using biological evidence and knowledge of commercial trade patterns, Stuart and colleagues sought to find a wild home for the Vietnamese box turtle (Cuora picturata), described by scientists in 1998 but known only from markets. They determined the Vietnamese box turtle was closely related to a couple of species that typically lived in upland, moist, closed canopy forests. They were also aware that this turtle species appeared most often in markets in southern Vietnam, making the Langbian Plateau a perfect place to begin their search.

During three field surveys between July 2010 and January 2011, Stuart’s colleagues Tri Ly and Huy Duc Hoang from the University of Science in Ho Chi Minh City, along with three local villagers and their turtle tracking dogs, found a total of eight Vietnamese box turtles. “This discovery provides the first opportunity to conserve the Vietnamese box turtle,” Stuart said, “and provides hope for determining the wild origin of other rare species that are known to scientists only by turtles bearing price tags.”

WIRED article: Turtle Known Only From Asian Markets Finally Found in Wild