Kate Charleton-Robb Interview!

So I got to sit down the other day and have a chat with PHD researcher Kate Charleton-Robb. This is the lady responsible for the discovery of the Burrunan dolphin in Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay and the salt water Gippsland Lakes. We had a chat about how it was she discovered the new species, what protection its likely to receive and what comes next for Kate and the Burrunan.

Kate Charleton-Robb Interview


Turtle Hospital

Of the 7 turtle species found worldwide 6 of these can be found in Australian waters. Of these 6 all are either endangered or critically endangered. Since their opening in the 1980’s as ‘Reef Wonderland’ Townsville’s Reef HQ Aquarium has been caring for sick and injured turtles found in the Townsville region. It was only in 2009 however that the aquarium opened its Turtle Hospital facility. In association with the James Cook University Veterinary Studies students the aquarists at Reef HQ help the turtles get back up on their flippers and back doing what they should be doing.

When I was at Reef HQ doing work experience I had the opportunity to see the hospital and learn a little bit about some of the turtles they had there and the dangers they face. The most common thing that the turtles present with is referred to as ‘floating syndrome’. This is where the turtles float on the surface of the water and are unable tot dive below to get their food. There can be many ways to cause this however the most common is a gut impaction. A gut impaction is when a turtle has consumed plastic bags to the point where their digestive track is clogged.

One of the turtles that was released on the 20th July – Polly was so presented with her digestive track clogged with plastic bags on the 21st April. So just 3 months in the turtle hospital and she’s ready to head back into the wild again!

So the methods that Nick mentioned to get the plastic bags out of a turtles system includes laxatives and enemas. While it may sound comical these are the only ways to clear out a turtles system since they cant actually be operated on. Oh! And for a point of reference the other turtle swimming in the video was admitted to the turtle hospital on the last day of my stay in this condition:

So the turtle down the bottom and to the left is the guy you see in the video. When turtles first arrive to the turtle hospital the are placed in slightly fresh water to remove any parasites and barnacles and given a broad spectrum of antibiotics as well as saline injections. This tank has a relatively low level of water in it to allow the turtles to simply raise their heads above water and get the oxygen they need. As the turtles condition improves they are moved into tanks of greater water depth.

Once the turtles are a little bit better the vets take them off to be x-rayed. The x-ray is really the most valuable tool when caring for the turtles because it lets the vets know what can and needs to be done.

The first x-ray on the left shows a turtle with a lung infection, this turtle was treated and eventually released. The other two show turtles that have ingested various fishing gear. The one in the middle had approximately 1m of fishing line and a swivel in its digestive track. The turtle did manage to pass some of this but was ultimately put down. The last x-ray shows a turtle that has a hook stuck in its neck. Since turtles cannot have surgery, unless this type of thing doesn’t bother them then they will also have to be put down.

The Reef HQ turtle hospital is funded by the organization but mostly through the donations of the public. They are hoping to build another wing in the near future to meet the demands of more ad more turtles.

New Dolphin Species!!

Research out of Monash University, Melbourne Victoria has indicated that there has been a completely different species of dolphin in Australia right under our noses! PHd researcher Kate Charlton Robb discovered this while looking at DNA and comparing skull morphology of this new species to that of the Bottlenose Dolphin. At first the researchers though the results of their data was a mistake, however it soon was revealed that this dolphin was in fact a new species; the Burrunan dolphin. This dolphin was named after a traditional Aboriginal word meaning “large sea fish of the porpoise kind”.

There are two species of Bottlenosed dolphin currently found in Australia, the Common bottlenosed dolphin and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose. The Burrunan dolphin found in Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes have been a point of mystery for some time. The size, shape and colour differences first led scientists to think that these may be a new species in 1915. However the differences sighted between this species and the bottlenosed dolphins were attributed to sex differences.

Two populations of the species are currently known, approximately 50 in the salt water Gippsland lakes and another 100 in Port Phillip Bay. Given such small population sizes the ultimate question is what conservation status these animals should be given. Researchers are petitioning the Australian government to list this species as endangered to ensure their future safety. Current research is looking into the population structure and the genetic isolation of this species to the bottlenosed dolphins.

Image sourced from National Geographic


So… I recently returned from a trip to Townsville to visit my family (yes I’m from Townsville – insert laugh here…) and while I was home I had an interesting conversation with my sister… Well not so much a conversation, more an argument over which type of extinction is worse. We all know that when an animal goes extinct it’s bad but my sister, like many others didn’t know that there are actually 3 different types of extinction. But which of these is the worst type of extinction? I hear the screams – ‘You’re extinct! What could be worse than that?!’ Well… We all know the conventional definition of extinction – a global extinction. This is where an animal can no longer be found anywhere – usually animals are given this classification after none have been sighted in 10 years. However there are still two other types of extinction to choose from (animals sitting around the table with a menu… ‘Hmm what are you going to have?’ ‘I think I might get a local extinction with a side of declining population numbers.’)

The next type of extinction is a local extinction – this is where in a particular geographic location there are none of these animals left. They still are found in other locations throughout their geographic range but not here. Example: the decent male – completely extinct in some parts of the world, but can still be found elsewhere – however their numbers are declining…

The final type of extinction is the ecological extinction. An ecological extinction is where the species population numbers in a location have declined to the point where they can no longer interact significantly with the other members of of the community. Is that crickets I hear? O.K. so in every system animals interact together to drive the overall community structure. So every animal has a role to play whether it be predator, competitor, prey or even involved in a mutualistic relationship. If an organism’s population numbers get so low that they cannot perform this role then the animals that interact with them aren’t affected the way they are supposed to be. As a result of this the community structure of the population changes and sometimes a community can collapse completely.

So, armed with this information which is worse? An animal completely disappearing from the face of the earth or declining to the point where other animals can’t interact with them the way they are supposed to? My sister’s argument – if they’re gone then they aren’t going to interact with anything anyway so what’s the difference? Well sister mine, despite the fact that we don’t want to lose any species, like it or not some species are more important than others. These are called keystone species. A keystone species is a species that is integral to the running of a system. In some systems there are multiple species that play the same role – so if you loose one there’s a backup and the system continues to run along happily. However in some systems there is one species that if it’s gone then the rest of the community is essentially buggered (like Thurston and the Cowboys…) So I suppose the big question is what’s more important – the individual or the whole?

Image sourced from flickr.com Author: oufoxy