It’s an ancient and well-known saying, ‘The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.’ This is an assessment frequently made of well-meaning NGO’s, who attempt to help struggling ‘third world’ cultures by imposing Western-style values and solutions. Turns out, our assumptions also get in the way of our assistance to endangered animal species.

For instance, we generally think that turtles are neglectful mothers. Once the eggs are deposited on sandy beaches, it’s adios to the progeny. Thus, gathering the eggs and incubating them in the safety of a laboratory seems an obvious solution to counter the decimation resulting from natural predation, loss of habitat and illegal trade.

Now, however, it turns out that in at least one species – the giant South American river turtle – mother and ‘childs’ are in communication before the young are even born. And as the hatchlings make their way out of their shells, along sandy beaches, and into the Amazon River, their mothers are guiding them all along the way.

A team of researchers in Brazil – including Camila Ferrara of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Dick Vogt of the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas de Amazônia – have identified and scientifically documented the turtles’ repertoire of low-frequency clicks and clucks that travel long distances underwater. Now they are faced with the need to reassess their assumptions and discover what gets lost by what is ‘saved.’

Does the head start they provide the infant turtles actually prevent the hatchlings from receiving essential parental guidance that can help them find what they need for their survival and migration in the enormously long and wide Amazon River?

Given the discovery of the on-going communication between the hatchlings and their mothers, researchers will now start exploring the survival rate among the human-assisted hatchlings. They will also record the maternal vocalizations and play the sounds to the hatchlings in the lab – and then in the Amazon once they return them to their natural habitat. Hopefully, coded in those sounds, is everything the tiny turtles need to know for making it in the world’s largest river.
News summary by Laurel Airica

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