A pair of Blackpool animal experts have been stumped by a mystery terrapin that even the country’s leading scientists can not identify.
Retired animal care lecturer John Vale and his wife Tracey, from Blackpool, were given the terrapin three weeks ago by staff at Lancaster and Morecambe College, who had been unable to identify the strange creature after it was brought to them by a baffled animal shelter owner.
John said: “I have worked with animals for 55 years and I’ve never come across a terrapin I couldn’t identify – until now.”
Desperate to identify the reptile, John and Tracey appealed to more than 40 veterinary experts and zoos in the hope of finding someone who could name the animal – but even leading biologists at The Museum of Natural History could not identify her.
John said: “We teach about exotic animals as a subject because it’s something we are both very knowledgeable in. If police find a snake or a reptile they’ll bring it to us because we know how to rehabilitate them. But this time we’ve got to hold our hands up and say we have no idea what this is.
“At first glance it looks very much like any other terrapin. But when you look closer you see it’s got a very light-coloured shell that looks more like a tortoise shell
“It’s particularly interesting because it has a hinged shell. That means it can cover the front and back of its shell with a special hinge to protect itself – something normal terrapins don’t have. There’s only one other breed of terrapin that has a hinged shell, but only at the front, not the back.
“For nobody to know what it is it has to be either a very rare, endangered terrapin, or from a country that would not allow them to be exported.”
The terrapin trade boomed in the 1980s and ’90s with the growing popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, when thousands of young fans bought the reptiles as pets – then abandoned them in rivers and ponds across the country once the novelty wore off.
In 1984, the EU imposed a ban on importing Mediterranean tortoises and terrapins to the UK to protect certain endangered species.
John and Tracey believe their mystery terrapin could be one such breed brought illegally into the country as a baby thanks to a telltale hole at the top of her shell.
John said: “It looks like it’s been burned in with a needle, probably to tie her to a stall to stop her wandering off while someone tried to sell her to tourists. It used to be common practice in Asian countries.
“Baby terrapins are so small, and with it hiding inside its shell the whole time it’s not hard to imagine that it could have been smuggled through customs on a key-ring or in someone’s pocket.”
He added that the theory of the reptile being the fifth mutant ninja turtle could be safely ruled out, as its physical anomalies are too well-designed to have occurred suddenly by chance.
He said: “To get like this it would have had to have evolved over hundreds and thousands of years.
“Our only hope now is that somebody will read this and recognise exactly what it is.”
The terrapin is described as a speedy, strong, carnivorous female, aged between 20 and 30 years old, with an unusually light brown-coloured shell, a dark greenish-brown body and a pointed snout. It currently measures around 26cm long and 23cm wide and closely resembles the Indian black turtle (also known as the hard-shelled batgun terrapin) – though its hinged shell is not found in the species, and is more commonly associated with tortoises.
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