Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#SciFri: European Turtle Alliance Conference 2023

On the 11th November, I visited Writtle University College for the annual conference of the European Turtle Alliance. Despite being reptiles, turtles and tortoises are not my forte and so I decided to try to fill that gap in my knowledge seeing as the perfect conference was right on my doorstep! I think one of the reasons why my experience with these two globally distributed groups of species is so limited, is because we don’t have any native terrestrial species which makes studying them slightly harder. However, I have managed to work on some non-native terrapins and hope to continue to do so, although there are some much better terrapin researchers out there! Back to the conference, there were 10 talks spaced throughout the day from a number of academics, vets, and zookeepers from across Europe working with tortoises and terrapins.

Jane Williams opened the conference with a talk on recent changes to legislation regarding pet tortoise welfare

A small number of the talks focussed on the changing relationships between turtles and tortoises with their owners in the UK, whether this be due to legislation, changes in the species being traded, or quantity of animals that require rehoming. One of the big problems facing tortoise ownership in Europe is the growing number of older people that have pet tortoises. As they are so long-lived, who takes care or ownership of them once their owners pass away? From a welfare point of view, how do those aging owners ensure that their pets are getting the right amounts of vitamins, minerals, UV light, and everything they need to be a happy tortoise? Some of the speakers tackled these questions and how to go about educating the public to ensure that everything is manageable, and who to turn to when it isn’t. Tortoises aren’t a cat or a dog, they need complex care which is sometimes hard to find.

Job Stumpel gave us a talk on his passion Geomyda

Something that was highlighted through multiple talks, including that by Job Stumpel, was the impact that individuals are having on the conservation of endangered turtle species across Europe. Job is one of the few people who has been successful in breeding Geomyda spengleri and G. japonica – with his wisdom and guidance now being implemented in the recovery programs of these two species. Another enthusiastic speaker Peter Praschag truly blew us all away. He is the director of a conservation project based in Austria called Turtle Island, which is the premier place for turtle conservation breeding in the world. From memory (and don’t quote me on this), Turtle Island has been successful in breeding over 1/3 of the world’s turtle species, including a number of the most endangered. This expertise has also been used to establish captive breeding projects in the home countries of those species, with assurance populations back in Austria. Keep up the work Peter, your talk was extremely inspiring in showing the impact that someone with a little bit of knowhow and passion can make!

Finally, there were also talks like that by Matt Rendle on the veterinary aspect of tortoise and turtle ownership. A concept that Matt introduced us to but makes perfect sense is physiological compensation – seen in animals that have been ill for a long time but have only recently started to take a turn for the worse. Tortoises are long-lived, have complex needs, and when suffering from illness may compensate by increasing their heart rate for example, to help them overcome this. It is only when they have been doing this to their breaking point that you observe a physical change in their behaviour or vitality, which indicates they are not well. As a vet, Matt sees tortoises on a regular occasion brought to him with a complex respiratory infection which takes years to develop – however the owners have only been aware of the issues for a few weeks or so. This ability for tortoises to mask their illnesses means taking care of them is sometimes harder than for other pets.

After the day of talks, we went to a nearby hotel ballroom for a much deserved gala dinner. The food was quite tasty, and the company was even better. I managed to have a number of amazing conversations with people around the dinner table which I hope to explore in the future for potential research collaborations. Additionally, on the Sunday (12th November) there was also an optional workshop regarding the veterinarian aspect of tortoise and turtle keeping, how to manage their light properly, and dissection. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to those sessions this time around due to other commitments, but there is always next year! I would just like to take this time to thank the European Turtle Alliance for helping to organise the conference, and Writtle University College for being such great hosts. Hopefully next time I’ll see some of you there!

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