John Cann

It had taken 25 years for a little curiosity to evolve into a search, then a quest and, ultimately, a race to discover the origins of arguably the best-known turtle in the country. It must have been my competitive instincts corning through, but I was glad it was me who both started the race and finished it.


Chapter 15:  Turtles (from John Cann:  The Last Snake Man, courtesy John Cann).

If my interest in snakes was inevitable, the beginnings of my passion for turtles was almost accidental. I first encountered turtles in Chinamans Creek near Botany Cemetery about 900 metres from my home in Yarra Bay. There are possibly no common long-neck turtles there anymore, but they may have returned now that contamination by the oil refinery run-off is no more. The first turtle I brought home was from east of Nowra, about 160 kilometres south of Sydney.

On the very snake-hunting trip where I pulled my father’s trousers down, we walked the Pyree swamp and dams, near where we lived during the war-God, he could walk! I caught three long-neck turtles to take home, and I put them in a bag. There was often a bus to the Bomaderry train, and I would mind the bags with the tent, camping gear and snakes while Pop had a well-earned beer in a pub.

While I was waiting, an old Aboriginal man asked me what was moving in the bag. I let him look inside and he said he’d give me sixpence for each of the turtles. A done deal! I was horrified when Dad later told me the old man was going to cook and eat them. That was the last time I made that mistake. Later I collected a long-neck turtle at Chinamans Creek and put it in my father’s frog pond.

Back then, these turtles were called tortoises. They’re now known in Australia as turtles, because the term is more widely accepted round the world, and mainly because they live in water.

When I worked in the bush and the rivers were clear I would go snorkel-diving as often as I could. I have never dived in a more enjoyable waterway than upper Macleay River, where I used to swim when I was working on the powerlines in the area.

There were dozens of short-neck turtles in every waterhole, and sometimes platypuses and water dragons too, swimming near me. Water dragons-Australia’s largest dragon lizard- would close their eyes under water, which was their way of hiding. It’s a different story today in the majority of eastern water systems. Having survived and thrived for tens of thousands of years despite natural predators, human activities have led to a significant decline in the number of turtles and other river creatures.

The first interesting-looking turtle that I thought might be a new species or subspecies, I found on the Macleay River. It was similar to a Macquarie turtle (Emydura acquarii), the ones most commonly found in eastern Australian rivers and dams, but it was smaller. John Goode, the author of the 1967 book Freshwater Tortoises of Australia and New Guinea and considered by many to be the father of Australian turtle study, travelled with me to this river and was impressed with this small turtle. I sent one specimen to Hal Cogger, then curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Australian Museum, who wasn’t sure what it was but agreed it was a form of Macquarie turtle.

Then I sent a photograph to Dr Archie Carr, the leading turtle and tortoise expert in the United States. He suggested I contact one of his students, Peter Pritchard, who asked me to send a pair of the turtles I’d found as well as a pair of Macquarie turtles for comparison. Fortunately, permits to send turtles overseas were easy to get, so I sent the specimens, despite the expensive postage. Later on he asked me to send more specimens but I was working on the powerlines and saving for a house at the time so I couldn’t do it.

In the 1970s, Professor John Legler from the University of Utah was working in Australia on our turtles, and he travelled with me along the New South Wales coast looking at turtles. When we returned to his base camp at the University of New England, I asked him if he was going to describe all the coastal river Australian short-neck Macquarie turtles we’d seen as subspecies.

‘You’re joking?’ he said. ‘They’re all different species.’ Sadly, Professor Legler never published that opinion and twenty years later I described them as subspecies, but some scientists to this day go to the other extreme and say they’re all the one species, Macquaries.

Just caught Mary River Turtle (Helen Cann)

* * *
Of all the turtles I’ve named or discovered, the one that may be my proudest achievement is a turtle that was utterly common- place, yet took me on a quarter-century-long quest to reveal its origins. This was the so-called ‘pet-shop turtle’, hatchlings of which I’d first noticed in Sydney shops in the early 1960s. I later learnt that it had also been sold in shops in Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide for years before that. In some hobbyists’ collections, they were beginning to acquire their own distinctive colours and form as they reached a carapace (shell) length of 100-130 millimetres. Meanwhile, hatchlings were to be seen every year scooting around Sydney’s commercial aquariums.

Its natural habitat remained a mystery, however, and a puzzle I was determined to solve. When I first began my inquiries into their origins I was told they were imported from Torres Strait. This seemed possible but unlikely, and after seven or eight years I rejected that theory.

By the late 1960s I was sure the pet-shop variety was not closely related to saw-shell turtles (Elseya latisternum), as most experts and shopkeepers claimed. In 1974 I brought these turtles to the attention of John Legler, and for working purposes we gave it the name ‘short-neck alpha’. It was only a matter of time, we reckoned, before its natural location was found and we would describe it in a scientific paper.

It would in fact be decades before the mystery of alpha’s habitat was solved. Up until the time I spoke to Legler I had told only a few close friends of my search for the undescribed turtle. When my book on Australian turtles was published in 1976 I still made no mention of it. By this time, we were both convinced that alpha came from Queensland and we concentrated our efforts there (although Legler later considered it to be a possible native of Papua New Guinea).

Mary River with John Greenhalgh ( Helen Cann)

In an effort to get more information, I tried to break the pet trade ‘code of ethics’ in New South Wales and Victoria. Pet shops rarely if ever revealed who supplied them with animals, partly because they didn’t want anyone to set up in competition and partly because the legality of some animal trading was dubious. After I offered any two reptiles from my collection in return for information, I received a number of phone calls, but the leads turned out to be false.

John thought it better from a scientific point of view to seek help from museums and government wildlife departments. In 1980 the Victorian fisheries and wildlife department contacted me with inquiries of their own. New legislation regulating the trade in reptiles was being prepared, and the people framing it needed to know whether the pet-shop turtle was native to Victoria, from elsewhere in Australia or was introduced. I wished I knew for certain, but I told them I was reasonably confident it came from Queensland. The following year I reluctantly broke my silence on alpha when I mentioned it briefly in an article on Australian turtles for GEO: Australian Geographic magazine.

The search was sure to hot up now that dedicated herpetologists came to realise they had an interesting undescribed turtle in their collections. It only made it more intriguing that this turtle had been living right under our noses for years. It was totally familiar and yet, from a scientific standpoint, unknown.

Not long after my article, I received a letter from Ric Fallu, the aquarium inspector for Victorian Fisheries and Wildlife in Melbourne. Still referring to the turtles as saw-shells, he told me that new state regulations had greatly reduced the number of hatchlings for sale, but that in earlier years, sales in Victoria had ranged from 3000-10,000 a year. Ric also gave me the name of a Melbourne aquarium owner he believed was the distributor for the state. I contacted the dealer, but he was as short with me as he had been with Fallu and told me nothing of any value before terminating our conversation.

Reluctantly, I pushed my hopes of discovering alpha’s habitat to the back of my mind. It seemed my annual holidays of four or five weeks weren’t long enough for a thorough search, although a number of three- and four-day trips allowed me to eliminate some possible locations nearer the ocean. A friend from Victoria went to Queensland, confident of making a discovery, while a number of Queensland contacts (some of them ex-traders)
worked the pet shops looking for clues, all to no avail. Maybe Legler was correct and the turtles came from Papua New Guinea.

When one of my contacts gave me a likely location in Far North Queensland, I wasn’t able to check it out. Legler did, but the 4000-kilometre round trip failed to locate any turtles. By the early 1980s my search was twenty frustrating years old. A breakthrough finally came, however, when wildlife enthusiast Gary Stevenson found a largish short-neck alpha in perfect shape and condition in Sydney’s Centennial Park.

Approximately 200 millimetres long and obviously released sometime earlier, it appeared to be a subadult that had grown as nature intended rather than with human-supplied food. Having a turtle of this size to examine for the first time prompted me to phone the Melbourne aquarium proprietor once more, and this time he was relaxed and cordial, suggesting I try searching a lake near Swan Hill in northern Victoria. It was another false lead, but this time the round trip was only 2000 kilometres!

In 1984 the Victorian government passed legislation making it illegal to sell freshwater turtles with a carapace length of less than 100 millimetres, effectively stopping the import of hatchlings. This pleased me greatly, and I asked a friend to call in on the Melbourne dealer, who now had no reason to keep his information so close to his chest. Sadly, however, he had moved on and we couldn’t locate him. By this stage the map I was using of Australia’s drainage system had been almost obliterated by scribbled comments, crosses and question marks. Legler suggested I continue my search in North Queensland, but the area had been searched pretty thoroughly. As the list of possible habitats was reduced, however, I slowly became convinced that the short-neck alpha was from southern Queensland, west of the ranges. It seemed likely that alpha had not been found because it came from sandy-soil country where the rivers were perpetually clouded.

In 1987 I finally managed to track down the Victorian pet-shop owner. Since he was now out of the trade, he gave me the name of the Sydney contact from whom he received the turtles. Rather than phone, I wrote a long letter and sent him copies of my book and the GEO: Australian Geographic article. A fortnight later we spoke on the phone and he told me that the turtles were sent from southern Queensland as I suspected, they arrived around Christmas each year, and he would be back in touch after he’d spoken to his supplier.

I was over the moon, although two long months passed before I was given the name I’d been searching for-John Greenhalgh from Maryborough, Queensland. I wrote to John, also sending him a couple of my publications. Receiving no reply, I phoned him. He was quite polite and finally gave me a location for short-neck alphas in the bore drains around the town of Bollon in south-west Queensland.

The main waterway there is Wallam Creek. I had never heard of it, but maps showed me it’s a 240-kilometre run of intermittent water that begins in Queensland and soaks about 100 kilometres into New South Wales in times of heavy flow, when it may even get as far as the Darling River. Of all the locations visited in my long search, this one excited me the most. It was in Queensland, in dirty water, and it was in the region where little research had been carried out. John Greenhalgh simply had to be telling the truth.

Since annual holidays are never long enough, I arranged some unpaid leave. Interest in the project was by now so great that Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney allowed its turtle expert, Chris Dorrian, to join me. John Legler was now back in the United States and, I allowed myself to think, would be informed of my triumph by fax. That was the plan but it was not to be the case.

After 2500 kilometres of hard driving I knew I’d have to be much more convincing before John Greenhalgh would pass on his long-treasured knowledge. On our way home, we visited the Condamine River, which John had mentioned in our conversation, but the water was clouded, it was approaching winter and water temperatures were probably too low for turtles. The Condamine would have to wait for another trip.

Meanwhile, I’d made arrangements to spend late September to early October of 1989 checking out as much of the Gulf and Cape York as five weeks would allow. With me was Graham Meredith, one of the few people who’d shown an interest in the short-neck alpha back in the early 1960s. The highlight of our trip was our meeting with John Greenhalgh, a big man of 76 years. I could instantly see he’d been around, and best of
all I liked him immediately.

For weeks, I’d rehearsed this meeting in my mind. I couldn’t afford to bomb it! When we introduced ourselves and got over the formalities I asked John if I could do the talking, and at the nod of his head I had the floor for five minutes. When I’d finished he simply nodded once more and said, ‘Okay, it’s here in the Mary.’

John then told his story, and the more he spoke the more I realised he knew about this turtle, which he called a ‘black head’, referring to the dark cap on its crown. Since it was morning we decided to go straight to the river and have a dive, while John said he would show us some eggs. That said, John had already mentioned the eggs’ incubation period was eight weeks, but I also knew the turtles hatched near Christmas and it was now only 30 September. As well as that, I still had my reservations about the Mary River. I’d dived there earlier, as had Gary Stevenson, John Legler, Patrick Couper of the Queensland Museum and Steve Swanson, who used to buy pet-shop turtles even though he actually lived on the Mary.

Nevertheless, my adrenaline was pumping as Graham and I arranged our diving gear. The water was extremely cloudy, as the river was being sand-dredged for industry further upstream. John had already gone down to the eroded riverbank in search of a nest but was back within fifteen minutes, telling me we were a month too early. He advised us to come back on our return from the Cape.

We dived the river for about an hour, but in vain. Visibility was down to about 60 centimetres and we found only the northern snapping turtle (Elseya dentata) and Krefft’s turtle (Emydura krefftii). After we’d driven John the 30 kilometres home, we returned to the river and checked another location, still with no results. After three hours of fruitless search I became convinced that John was playing games with us. He wouldn’t have been the first naturalist to give a perceived rival a bum steer to protect a resource that only he knew about. We headed north.

On our way back, on 30 October, we were diving the Mary River again, but we didn’t call in on John or check the nesting sites he’d shown us. Instead, we spent a couple of hours diving in adverse conditions, set a number of traps with various types of bait and settled down by a good camp fire.

As we reflected on the distance we’d travelled on this trip and the number of possible locations we’d eliminated from our search, I felt that no one else but us deserved to locate alpha. But, boy, they were trying! While we were up north, Chris Dorrian and a companion were checking out my next location on the Condamine River, just over the ranges!

During the following months, I kept in touch with John Greenhalgh and a bond seemed to develop between us. We certainly had some interests in common. ‘Next season you’ll get him,’ he told me on the phone. Since John had told me of up to 15,000 hatchlings being incubated each year, with about sixteen to the nest, I agreed there had to be enough adults in the river for me to find one.

In August 1990, Helen and I left Sydney on a twelve-week round-Australia trip to photograph turtles and their locations. I’d planned to reach the Mary River in late October and keep in touch with John while we were on the road. There was a note waiting for me when we arrived in Humpty Doo at Gow’s Reptile Zoo.

‘I’ve got one,’ John had written. Accompanying the letter was a photograph of what I thought to be an adult male alpha. One of John’s many friends had caught it for me. We cut a week off our itinerary and headed straight for Maryborough. By the time we arrived I was as excited as it’s possible to feel while still harbouring some apprehension. A search that had lasted for more than a quarter of a century was coming to an end. John greeted us, took me to a large drum in which he kept the turtle and removed the lid.

My heart sank. Inside there was just a medium-sized northern snapping turtle. My mind flashed back to the photograph I’d seen in Darwin and I thought of all the kilometres I’d clocked up over so many years-including more than 22,000 on this trip alone. I was speechless with disappointment and it must have showed. John held a straight face for about ten seconds then, with a grin, said, ‘Well, if that’s not him, look in this drum.’

It’s hard to convey my feelings when I first looked at an adult pet-shop turtle. At last I was able to pick up one of the creatures I’d been searching for since the early 1960s. But although I never mentioned it to John, I still wondered if the old fox had had it sent from another river. I had to check.

By late afternoon we were on the river again, at another location, walking along the road, when John found a nest that contained sixteen smallish eggs. The first tracks of the female, probably made the previous night, and the depth at which the eggs were deposited indicated that she was large. The only turtle I knew of that size on the Mary River was the northern snapping turtle, but these eggs were obviously from a different species. In fact, I’d never seen eggs like them before. We buried them again, but I planned to return to them if I had no more success on the river. No diving was attempted that day as the water was cloudier than on my previous visits and I had ear trouble from weeks of constant diving.

Next morning, we were back on the Mary. John rowed while I dived, my depth restricted to 1.5 metres, where visibility was only about 80 centimetres. Still, I caught a number of other Elseya and Emydura species, much to John’s surprise. My worries that the pet-shop turtle came from elsewhere still nagged me and, sitting in the boat, my ear aching, I was tempted to ask John to come clean. But I could see that he too was becoming frustrated. He said that he had reservations about catching one in these murky waters but was sure I would meet with success if I stayed for another couple of weeks!

After a late lunch, I walked a few hundred metres downstream with a pair of binoculars. I could see two large turtles basking on a log, but I was too far away to distinguish them. I crawled forward another 30 metres to a better vantage point and, sure enough, made a positive identification. The pet-shop turtle- John Greenhalgh’s ‘black head’ -was native to the Mary River. Helen videoed the sighting and my reaction. The search was over.

The turtle really should have been ‘discovered’ years earlier, since it’s found so close to Brisbane. The main north-south highway crosses the Mary River drainage system at a number of locations and is never far from the river itself.

Not only that, but the much-studied Queensland lungfish (Neoceratodus jorsteri) is found only in the Mary River and the Burnett River immediately to the north. First described by Gerald Krefft in 1870, the lungfish can only be effectively caught with set nets, so it’s likely that many pet-shop turtles were also netted. If so, they must have been released undescribed, since none had been registered at museums.

It had taken 25 years for a little curiosity to evolve into a search, then a quest and, ultimately, a race to discover the origins of arguably the best-known turtle in the country. It  must have been my competitive instincts corning through, but I was glad it was me who both started the race and finished it.