Donatello, the sunbathing ninja turtle, was the centre of attention at the Palmerston North Department of Conservation (DoC) office yesterday after being discovered basking beside the Kawau Stream.
The turtle - from a species more at home in the humid American South - was captured by DoC technical support officer Lindsay Golding and identified as a red- eared slider.
Strictly speaking, Donatello is a terrapin in this part of the world. In the United States and Canada, the red-eared slider is considered a turtle, but elsewhere the line is often drawn differently. A turtle is considered aquatic, a tortoise is a land animal and a terrapin spends time in both habitats.
Red-eared sliders are almost completely aquatic, crawling on to rocks and fallen trees to sunbathe.
That's what Donatello was doing when Mr Golding came by, commiserating with himself after the Melbourne Cup for investing in a treacle-footed Equus callabus.
He looked up and saw Donatello sunning himself beside the Kawau Stream.
"I thought he must be some kid's pet, so I walked on. The next two days he was gone, but when I passed by today there he was, but on the other side of the stream, so I caught him."
Back at work, Donatello was fussed over by DoC staff who were considering doing a door-knock in the area where he was found to see if he was an escaped pet.
Biodiversity manager Vivienne McGlynn said that while red-eared sliders could be bought at pet shops neither they, nor their shells could be imported without permits. They are illegal in Australia.
Colonies of released turtles were known to be living in the Waikato River, but were not considered a danger because the New Zealand climate was not warm enough for them to breed.
"They look cute when they are small, but once they get bigger they can become grumpy and prone to nipping," she said. "They can also carry salmonella."
Mrs McGlynn fears that turtles bought as children's pets might be abandoned once owners discover how much care is required.
While they were not a problem now, if global warming brought about a significant temperature rise, they could be.
Red-eared turtles are omnivores, eating mostly meat when young and becoming progressively more vegetarian as they aged.
If established in New Zealand they would have the potential to cause great harm to plant and small animal life around waterways, including small fish.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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