Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Big-headed Terrapin, Platysternon megacephalum, can climb


A note I found in Water Life of August 1957, brought back memories of ten years later in Hong Kong:

     Mme Natasha du Breuil of Hong Kong, wrote recently to Aquarists’ Internationale colleague Henry Nicholls to tell him she had acquired a ferocious tree-climbing turtle, Platysternum [sic] megacephalum. Mr Nichols writes, “In town shopping she saw a Chinese man hurrying by in the opposite direction with a basketful of turtles. She took a few seconds to realise they looked cold, then reversed direction to catch him up. They were indeed tree-climbing turtles, so she bought one for the equivalent of 2/6d, and popped it into her market basket and sped for home before the beast could devour her leg of lamb, pound of cheese and pound and a half of bird seed. He is now enjoying a recuperative nap!”
     Later news from Mme Du Breuil herself is that the turtle has settled down well to vivarium life. She says, “In spite of the bad reputation they have mine has not shown any desire to bite me when handles, but it can open its jaws more like a snake than a turtle. It attacks food in a most realistic hunting style. I have never seen it come out on the rock provided in its tank but, when I put it in the yard, it showed most astonishing speed, making a sudden dash for cover, very much as a lizard would do.”

That snippet was accompanied by a photograph by A. de la Moussaye.

Our experience in the late 1960s of this species, Platysternon megacephalum, the Big-headed Terrapin, now classified as Endangered by IUCN, provided a more powerful demonstration of its climbing abilities. In amongst the other terrapins, we rescued one from Central Market before it made somebody’s dinner. Before taking it into the lab the next day to put it into an aquarium before release, we put it on the balcony of our flat on Conduit Road in a bowl of water. The balcony was surrounded by a wall of smooth, painted concrete about four feet high. The next morning there was no sign of the terrapin. Had a kite taken it in the early hours? We looked up and down Conduit Road but then turned to see the two caretakers staring at something in the garages under the block of flats. There in a puddle of water was the terrapin. She (see later) must somehow have climbed the wall possibly in one corner.

The rule shows inches
She fed voraciously on pieces of meat and fish and a few days later produced a single egg. Our departure from Hong Kong was brought forward and we did not have the time to find a mountain stream in which to release her. Instead, she went into one of the goldfish ponds then in the university compound. There was a nearby nullah and our guess was that if she survived at all, she could have made her way up the nullah to the more gentle streams that flow from the Peak. As Madame du Breuil noted these terrapins can really move at speed on land.


On the roof of the now demolished Northcote Science
Building at the University of Hong Kong, the Big-head
needed to be tethered

The head, which cannot be fully withdrawn, appears
to have an armoured exoskeleton

Incidentally, I have found a single reference to Aquarists Internationale. It was apparently a society founded by Gene Wolfsheimer, a well-known and innovative aquarist of the time. He loomed large in my recent posts  on ‘lactation’ in discus fish.

But who was Madame Du Breuil? In finding out I discovered a great deal about two amateur naturalists active in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s. They will the subject of a future post.