Research notes

Suzhou Zoo ~ Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle

Last month I made a trip to Suzhou Zoo, Jiangsu province, to meet Susu and Xiangxiang, China’s only remaining Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtles, the largest and rarest freshwater turtle on earth. There is just one other known individual of the species, a wild male in Xuan Khanh Lake, Vietnam, where the animal is considered to have supernatural powers and represent the Golden Turtle God.

My visit was mostly spent with the human who has been responsible for taking care of them for the last decade or so. As the weather was dismal – freezing cold, windy and bucketing rain – Di Min cheerily confirmed that we didn’t stand much of a chance of seeing the creatures in person, since they’d likely be ensconced in the muddy banks of their respective pools. On such days the turtles are usually monitored via a 5-camera CCTV display in an indoor observation room.

Yangtze Giant Softshell turtles once ranged between the Red River and the Yangtze lower floodplains, losing their habitat inevitably to industrial interventions like sand dredging, dam construction and pollution, and subject also to hunting for food and for their bones and shells, used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Individuals held in a handful of Chinese zoos died in the early 21st century (one in Beijing in 2005 and another in Shanghai the following year), leaving only Suzhou’s Susu and Xiangxiang, whose names eventually slipped away. Now known simply as ‘the male’ and ‘the female’, these two are plodding on into middle age (110 and 90 years old) in relative comfort in separate muddy pools not dissimilar to the nearby Lake Tai, one of the last places their wild ancestors were found in China.

Despite years of unsuccessful artificial insemination efforts, leading some conservationists to label them a ‘zombie species’, Di Min is optimistic about Susu and Xiangxiang’s chances of (assisted) breeding. She tells of swishing oversized cooking chopsticks in the water to call them to dinner, and simply can’t conceive of the species ending here. Before we leave, Susu makes a brief surprise appearance, popping up his head by the water’s edge before disappearing back into the grey.

Thanks to Augustina for translating!

Shanghai Natural History Museum

Shanghai Natural History Museum is quite a different beast to its counterpart in Beijing. Shaped like a nautilus, the shiny new building sits partly underground in Jing’an Sculpture Park, asking serious questions throughout its 479,180 square feet that circle back and forth around extinction. 

are these gas mask boxes part of The Elapse of Life display..?
gliding into extinction history, the latest star

Sharing of scientific research is clearly emphasised, and there are special sections on Holocene extinctions at a global level (above), disappearing wildlife of Shanghai (‘the Former Shanghai “Residents”‘), and the big five mass extinction events.

The museum has stuffed specimens of several animals only found in China: Panda, Chinese Alligator and the Chinese Giant Salamander, all of which are (or have been) on the edge of extinction.

Milu or Pere David’s deer
normally known as the Sacred ibis…

No Yangtze River Dolphin here either.. just an empty display cabinet for the baiji skeleton, with a tiny label: ‘specimen temporarily removed’.

There’s also a wonderful slab of the Cambrian strata of Chengjiang, ‘one of the most amazing scientific discoveries in the 20th century’. Chengjiang region (Yunan province) was a warm, shallow sea area during the Cambrian Explosion, a profusion of sea life 525 million years ago. The formation was famed for containing so many excellently-preserved fossil metazoans, covering every phylum of extant species and many extinct groups.

Natural History Museum, Beijing

A visit to Beijing’s Natural History Museum! If you’re hoping to find out information about extinct species in China like the baiji (Yangtze river dolphin), this might not be the place. In several floors of classic once-stately but now somewhat shabby museum style, there is just one stuffed finless porpoise (not Lipotes vexillifer at all), mysteriously labelled ‘river dolphin’. A little sad, to say the least!

There is however an unarguably remarkable Jurassic Park-style robotic dinosaur display, complete with quick glassy eyes and roaring sound effects. And many, many marauding children, whose parents try desperately to photograph them in front of dusty dioramas of poised tigers and silent forest monkeys. Wild in unexpected ways.

Chinese alligator, extremely rare nowadays.


fossil plants

The only dolphins in sight – happy (sea) dolphins decorating the back wall of a dimly-lit basement aquarium, home to slowly moping sturgeon, swordfish and swirls of brightly coloured smaller fish.


A taste of things to come… de-extinction, anyone?

[all photos taken by the author]