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A Turtle With a Permanent Smile Was Brought Back From Extinction

Around the same time, a live specimen turned up in a market in Hong Kong and subsequently found its way to an American collector, who still has it in his possession.

“When the species showed up in a pet shop in Hong Kong, it raised a lot of eyebrows,” said Rick Hudson, president of the Turtle Survival Alliance. “There were a number of local dealers smuggling star tortoises out of Burma at that time, so we just assumed it had been smuggled out by the same traders.”

Encouraged by these developments, Gerald Kuchling, a biologist now at the University of Western Australia, secured permission to initiate a joint expedition with the Myanmar Forest Department to survey the upper Chindwin River, where an American expedition in the 1930s had collected Burmese roofed turtles.

When the summer monsoon grounded the team in Mandalay, Dr. Kuchling killed time by visiting the turtle pond at a Buddhist temple. Gazing out at the murky water, he suddenly saw three smiley heads pop up. They bore an uncanny resemblance to photos of Burmese roofed turtles he had seen in old natural history catalogs.

Dr. Kuchling returned the following day and lured the three turtles to the edge of the pond with a bit of grass. In the seconds before the guards began shouting for him to back away from the animals, he was able to confirm that they were indeed the long-lost species.

“I was very excited, and definitely flabbergasted,” he said.

Dr. Kuchling and his Burmese colleagues worked with the temple’s board to transfer the rare reptiles, a male and two females, to the Mandalay Zoo.

The species’ luck was just beginning. Dr. Kuchling found several additional surviving individuals in the Dokhtawady River, a tributary of the Irrawaddy, and arranged for their transfer to the Mandalay Zoo. The timing was fortunate: a major damming project soon after destroyed all suitable nesting habitat for the turtles in the area.

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