MIAMI, June 2, 2021 /PRNewswire/ -- Using a rapid DNA testing toolkit developed by Florida International University (FIU) researchers, Colombian officials stopped an illegal shipment of 2,200 Matamata turtles and returned them to the Orinoco river basin.
Diego Cardeñosa, FIU postdoctoral researcher in the Institute of Environment at the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, worked with a collaborative team of Colombian scientists and authorities at the International Airport Alfredo Vásquez Cobo in Leticia, Colombia to test the shipment of freshwater turtles. The DNA testing toolkit developed by Cardeñosa and FIU marine scientist Demian Chapman is fast, portable, easy to use and highly accurate in identifying species.
Matamata turtles are native to South America and are most recognizable by their rough, knobby shell and snorkel-like snout. Each year, thousands of these unique, bizarre-looking animals end up in the hands of traffickers. They are a very lucrative find for pet markets in the United States, Europe and Asia where they can be legally sold, sometimes costing upward of $300. It is illegal to trade Matamata turtles in Colombia, where they are currently listed as a near threatened species.
When the shipment of baby Matamata turtles was found with their alien-like features, customs officials didn't need a DNA test to know they were looking at a protected species. What they didn't know is what species of Matamata they were looking at. Originally thought to be a single species, a recent discovery revealed there are actually two genetically distinct species of Matamata turtles. Virtually identical in appearance, one species exclusively resides in the Orinoco river basin and the other in the Amazon River basin.
When a shipment of illegally trafficked live Matamata turtles is found, it is important to quickly identify the species so they can be returned to the correct river basin. Introducing an Orinoco turtle to the Amazon River basin - or vice versa - could have negative effects that would ripple throughout that entire native turtle population, affecting evolutionary processes and its genetic health.
Traditionally, customs officials transport a few confiscated turtles to a lab for DNA testing — not quite an expeditious endeavor. While the officials would wait for results, they are usually also trying to keep thousands of turtles alive.
With the DNA testing toolkit, officials on the ground can accurately identify the species on-site in about two hours, quickly giving them the information they need to significantly reduce stress on the animals and return them to the wild. The cost for the test is about $1 per sample.
The findings were recently published in Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.
For more information, visit: https://go.fiu.edu/matamatas.
SOURCE Florida International University