What is a flatback turtle? The flatback turtle (Natator depressus) is a quite special Australian, as this species only breeds on beaches and islands of northern Australia. This large marine turtle is only found in Australian waters and some nearby waters in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, so it is very important that we protect its nesting beaches and look after this species. It is one of only six marine turtle species found in Western Australia, and they are all threatened.
What does it look like? As its name suggests, the shell of the flatback turtle is flattened on top. The edges of the olive-grey shell are also upturned slightly. Adults reach about a metre long and weigh from 100 to 125 kilograms.
Where does it live? Flatback turtles are mostly found in Australian waters and breed only in northern Australia. They are found in the Muiron Islands Marine Management Area, Barrow Island Marine Park, Montebello Islands Marine Park, the proposed Dampier Archipelago Marine Park, Eighty Mile Beach Marine Park, the proposed Yawuwu Nagulagun / Roebuck Bay Marine Park, the proposed Lalang-garram / Horizontal Falls Marine Park, Lalang-garram / Camden Sound Marine Park and the proposed North Kimberley Marine Park.
What they eat and how: Flatback turtles feed on soft corals, jellyfish and other animals with soft bodies such as sea cucumbers.
Threats: The eggs of flatback turtles are eaten by dingos and introduced foxes. Some nesting beaches, such as those in Port Hedland in Western Australia's north-west, are lit by nearby street lighting that confuses hatchlings when they are trying to make their way to the sea. Flatback turtles are sometimes accidentally caught in trawls.
Breeding: Flatback turtles nest on sheltered, often muddy beaches in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of Western Australia, and on a few islands, such as those in the proposed Dampier Archipelago Marine Park, Barrow Island (which lies alongside the Barrow Island Marine Park), Thevenard Island and the Muiron Islands Marine Management Area. Most rookeries are small. About 54 eggs are laid in each clutch, and up to three clutches are laid in each breeding season.
Conservation status: The flatback turtle is threatened and is protected under Western Australian and Australian legislation. New marine parks in the Kimberley already declared or proposed under the State Government's Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy will greatly improve the conservation status of the flatback turtle. The proposed North Kimberley Marine Park, for example, includes a major flatback turtle nesting area at Cape Domett.
How you can protect the flatback turtle: Always dispose of plastic bags carefully, as marine turtles can mistake them for jellyfish and eat them by mistake. If you find a turtle with a tag please note the number and contact the Department of Parks and Wildlife, which conducts turtle tagging in association with Aboriginal traditional owners and numerous volunteers at important nesting beaches throughout WA. Your find may add to our knowledge of these creatures. The information that is collected is used to better manage and protect WA's populations of flatback turtles. If you should find a dead turtle you should also advise Parks and Wildlife.
Photos courtesy of Andrea Whiting