|A turtle believed to be of the same species as the one that lived in Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hà Nội was found in the Đồng Mô Lake outside the city in 2007. — Photo courtesy of biologist Hà Đình Đức|
HÀ NỘI — A new turtle with an appearance similar to that of the turtle that lived in Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hà Nội have been found. But according to an expert, it is yet to be confirmed if they are of the same species.
The Asia Turtle Programme (ATP) announced last Thursday it had found a turtle of the same species as the Hoàn Kiếm turtle in a town north of Hà Nội using environmental DNA testing (eDNA) techniques.
ATP considered this “a ground-breaking discovery” since the last turtle that lived in Hoàn Kiếm Lake – one of the last of the Yangtze giant softshell turtles, belonging to the species Rafetus swinhoei – died in January 2016.
The species now has just three living specimens, two in China and one in a lake outside Hà Nội.
If the turtle found by ATP is of the same species as the Hoàn Kiếm turtle, it will increase the number of the specimens to four.
The discovery also gives hope to Vietnamese scientists in terms of preserving the species by breeding the two specimens.
ATP said the turtle was first spotted by locals in Xuân Khánh Lake in Sơn Tây Town in 2016.
In May 2017, ATP researcher Nguyễn Văn Trọng was able to capture a good-quality photograph that showed the turtle to be soft-shelled, but it was not enough to identify its species.
ATP decided to collect water samples from the lake and analysed them in a laboratory of the Washington State University following eDNA testing – a technique that focuses on detecting the smallest genetic traces in the water, often applied to fish and amphibians, according to ATP.
The analysis showed that the genetic traces found in the water were consistent with those found in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, ATP said.
However, Hà Đình Đức, a biologist who spent years studying the last Hoàn Kiếm turtle, said the evidence of ATP was not enough to confirm if the two turtles belonged to the same species.
“The biological terms ‘family’ and ‘species’ get mixed up all the time,” he said. “All freshwater turtles belong to the Trionychidae family, so even the Asiatic softshell turtle can be considered ‘related’ to the Hoàn Kiếm turtle, but they are not of the same ‘species’,” he said.
“Biologically speaking, two specimens of the same species are those that are exactly alike and are able to reproduce when mating with each other, and their offsprings will be able to do the same,” he added.
“Breeding two specimens of different species may produce the first generation of offsprings, but these offsprings will not be able to reproduce,” he said, referring to the mule, which is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse.
Since ATP scientists were not able to catch the turtle and conducted studies only on the basis of observation and water samples, it is yet to be confirmed if the turtle they found is of the same species as the Hoàn Kiếm turtle, Đức said, adding that “catching a turtle in such a deep, large lake is not an easy task.”
The other two turtle specimens belonging to the same species as the Hoàn Kiếm turtle – one male and one female – are being cared for at the Suzhou Zoo in China. Scientists have tried breeding the two since 2008 with no success as the eggs laid by the female were infertile. — VNS