Episode 97 – Mary River Turtle: The Punk Rock Respirator

“And today we’re talking about a turtle that does what it wants because it’s punk rock.”

Turtles enjoy the aquatic lifestyle, eating algae, river plants, and fish. But, unlike those fish that are privileged with water-breathing gills, turtles must make trips to the surface to breathe. But one Australian turtle species with a punk rock style goes against the grain with its respiration. But to join this counter-cultural genre of gas exchange, it has to adopt a bizarre style of breathing. But sometimes an awkward adaptation is enough to give you an edge in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.


  • Large-ish turtle with a streamlined carapace
  • Coloring can be plain and drab or vibrant and complicated (like Ben Stein or Miss Frizzle)
  • Barry’s shell and skin is often cream or pinkish, though it’s tough to tell because the shell is usually covered in algae or mud
  • Has a long tail
  • Its neck is long and it wears a dopey grin on its beak-mouth thing. It also has two large nostrils that open straight out like a double-barreled shotgun.
  • It has two little antennae-like things called barbels that stick out from underneath its chin. It looks like its head is on a tiny pair of stilts.
  • Lastly, you’re gonna want to look up pictures of this turtle since it abandons the typical chrome dome of mortal turtles and dons the luscious locks of a Greek deity. 
    • You may be asking: what? A turtle with hair?
    • Yes and no. There is a kind of algae that likes to attach itself to the turtle’s shell and head that grows quickly and in thick patches to make it look like it’s in an Olay commercial. It works as a kind of camoflauge.
    • Seriously, Barry is extremely photogenic. But he also looks like a mad scientist with its crazy turtle eyes and poofy hair. Like Doc Martin or Rick from Rick and Morty

Measure Up

Welcome to Measure Up, leading candidate for best part of the show, a title to be officially determined by you on December 3rd on Twitter and Facebook. This is the part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words measure up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We have no new intros this week, so that means I get to play an animal sound and Carlos will guess what it is!

Carapace Length

  • 50 cm (1.6 feet) in 
  • How many Mary River Turtles go into width of the Torres Strait at its narrowest (150 km (93 mi))?
  • Hint: The Torres Strait is a body of water that separates Australia from the Island of New Guinea. It’s where the Australian aborigines were thought to have crossed by boat or land bridge thousands of years ago. 
  • Answer: 299,337 turtles


  • 12 grams on average.
  • How many turtles go into the weight of a Maton Tommy Emmanuel acoustic guitar (18 pounds)?
  • Maton is an Australian guitar brand and Tommy Emmanuel is a two-time grammy nominated Australian guitarist, best known for his complex fingerstyle and guitar percussion techniques. 
  • 680 turtles.

Major Fact

A lot of people mistakenly think that turtles are amphibians.

  • However, even though these reptiles aren’t amphibians, that can be amphibious.
  • Mary River Turtles are one of a few turtles that can engage in what’s called bimodal respiration, which is the ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide from the air and the water.
  • Fish, frogs, and some arthropods also use bimodal breathing.
  • Most animals used it to help facilitate an amphibious lifestyle. 
  • Fish may do it to help them in low-oxygen waters.
  • Bimodal breathing is often achieved through cutaneous respiration, which means breathing through the skin.
  • Frogs that do this often have large skin folds to increase surface area.
  • However, the mary river turtle doesn’t use just any skin to breath. 
  • They particularly use the skin in and around their cloacas to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. 
  • That’s right, they can breathe through their butts. 
  • Mary River Turtles live in well-oxygenated streams that allow them to get oxygen from the water.
  • They open and close their cloacas to pass water over the skin to collect oxygen, sort of like how fish lungs open and close.
  • The inside of the cloaca is lined with a gill like structure that helps get the most oxygen out of the water.
  • This allows them to remain underwater for longer periods of time and prevents them from needing to take frequent trips to the surface to breathe with their lungs.
  • A hatchling was once recorded remaining submerged for two and a half days!