Cracking the Code

Scientists have developed a test to extract DNA from hawksbill turtle products including tortoiseshell jewellery.

It’s a breakthrough that could help save the species, hunted for their beautiful shells, and now listed as critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

The DNA extraction project involved the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia in a collaboration with scientists at the NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) in California, USA.

Hawksbill turtles from different regions are genetically distinct. If authorities can test seizures of illegal tortoiseshell products, they can pinpoint which populations are being targeted by poachers and direct policing efforts to those areas.

A novel method that in the future could be a major weapon against small and large-scale operations still targeting hawksbills for the illegal trade.

In developing the test, WWF research consultant Dr Michael Jensen, working with NOAA scientists, faced obstacles.

Shell often contains degraded DNA compared to fresh tissue. The heat and chemical treatments used to create tortoiseshell products could further damage DNA.

But the team was able to modify a commercially available DNA extraction kit to effectively work on hawksbill shell products.