The Vallarta Mud Turtle | Mexico

Mexico, Puerto Vallarta, Bahia de Banderas

The Vallarta Mud turtle (Kinosternon vogti) was described as recently as 2018 (Lopez-Luna et al. 2018). Despite its unique appearance, they were overlooked by generations of herpetologists, with males exhibiting a striking bright yellow spot on the top of their head, which is less pronounced in females. They are the smallest turtle species on the planet, with males rarely exceeding 75mm straight carapace length (SCL) and females being slightly larger but still rarely crossing the 95mm mark. Before the rainy season in May and June, they typically undergo 3-5 months of aestivation (prolonged dormancy similar to hibernation), deeply buried in the sand. The tiny hatchlings with about 20mm SCL, hatch at the beginning of the rainy season. The rest of the year the species is highly aquatic, inhabiting ponds, slow moving streams, and swamps, where they feed on fish, insects, carrion, plant matter and basically anything they can overcome.

Together with our partners, the Centro Universitario de la Costa of the University of Guadalajara (CUC), the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and the Estudiantes Conservando la Naturaleza AC (ECN), we are dedicated to preventing the imminent extinction this species. The problem/threats: This species is highly endemic to the small valley of the Bahia de Banderas in the Mexican provinces of Nayarit/Jalisco, inhabiting small, lowland, not brackish waterbodies. Unfortunately, this valley represents one of the largest and fastest developing tourist resort areas along the western Mexican coast, being a popular winter tourist area for sun hungry north American citizens as well as to many migratory bird species. The once swampy valley is densely populated and paved over with fancy hotels, leaving little remaining waterbodies for the species to survive. We estimate that less than 1000 specimens survive, scattered among less than 10 known sites, covering less than 100 hectares. During a field survey in February 2022, our team discovered many specimens killed by automobiles along one of its most important habitats. These turtles were trying to migrate to their summer area to aestivate, as their pond dries up during the hot summer months. This road did not exist 10 years ago and cuts right through this core population, not permitting the species to cross it alive. To make matters worse, due to increasing real-estate prices, the owner of this swamp plans to sell it to a hotel chain for yet another resort to be constructed.

It is our goal to prevent the imminent extinction of this species, which is mainly caused by severe habitat destruction. Turtle Island and its partners analyzed the key threats such as roadkill and significant loss of habitat. In February 2023, to avoid further roadkill, Turtle Island and the CUC installed a turtle fence with pitfall traps along the road previously noted with numerous turtles killed by automobiles. An assurance facility at the CUC for housing confiscated/rescued specimens is under construction. We also plan to purchase and protect some of the last few remaining sites.

With the installation of the turtle fence, more than 30 specimens were saved from being killed on the road, being translocated to form an assurance colony at the CUC. At Turtle Island, our assurance colony has recently achieved the world’s first captive breeding success of this species, with three hatchlings emerging from their eggs in early February of 2023! The offspring produced by our group will be used for potential future in-situ release projects once protected land is available.