Two-headed turtle hatches in Sabah’s Mabul Island

Julia Chan
The two-headed baby turtle amazed marine biologists who have seen over 13,000 hatchlings on the island. — Picture courtesy of Scuba Junkie Seas

KOTA KINABALU, July 16 — Marine scientists and wildlife enthusiasts here were stunned and amazed when a two-headed green turtle hatchling emerged from the sand at the Mabul Turtle Hatchery in Mabul Island, off Semporna yesterday.

The hatchling — one from a nest of 93 hatchlings released — came up at the Mabul Turtle Hatchery which is run by SJ SEAS, the conservation arm of dive operator Scuba Junkie, and surprised SJ SEAS chairman Mohd Khairuddin bin Riman.

“We have released around 13,000 hatchlings from the hatchery and have never seen anything like this before. This is extremely unusual,” he said.

SJ SEAS marine biologist and conservation manager David McCann said that such a specimen was an anomaly but an examination showed that both heads are functioning separately.

“The heads both breathe independently, and react to stimuli separately. It is utterly fascinating. The right head seems to control the front right flipper, and the left head the front left flipper. Yet they are capable of co-ordinating their movements in order to walk and swim,” he said.

The condition of having two heads on one body is described scientifically as dicephalism, and is highly unusual, although not unheard of.

“There was a similar instance in Redang in 2014. The hatchling was studied for three months before it sadly died from pneumonia,” said Sabah Wildlife Department’s (SWD) Wildlife Rescue Unit chief veterinarian Dr Sen Nathan.

“Unfortunately, these turtles would not survive in the wild — including this specimen, whose plastron is not fully developed or closed. Observation by the biologists on site also indicated that in deeper water, one head couldn’t get above water comfortably to breathe,” he said.

The heads both breathe independently, and react to stimuli separately. — Picture courtesy of Scuba Junkie Seas

The hatchling is currently being kept in shallow water allowing it to breathe easily.

There are no plans for the hatchling to be released into the wild just yet as it would not survive. It is being cared for by the marine biologists and HWWs of the Mabul Turtle Rehabilitation Centre.

Green, as well as Hawksbill turtles are listed under Schedule 1 of the 1997 Wildlife Conservation Enactment and are totally protected by law in Sabah.

“For this reason, the hatchling is being kept under observation by the dedicated biologists and HWWs who run the Mabul Turtle Rehabilitation Centre,” said SWD director Augustine Tuuga.

“Our primary concern is for the hatchlings’ welfare. Although these guys may not have a good prognosis, we will do our best to ensure that they are comfortable and taken care of,” said McCann.

The usual procedure in Sabah is to release the hatchlings as soon as they are hatched, but authorities have given special exemption in this case.

“We do have experience of looking after weak/sick/injured turtles from running the turtle rehabilitation centre, but one this small —  I doubt very many people have experience with,” added McCann.

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