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Nagasaki: Softshell turtles might be falling from the sky?

Couetesy of Takanori Matuo
A softshell turtle swims in the Honmyo River in Isahaya, Nagasaki Prefecture.

ISAHAYA, Nagasaki — While driving in an urban area four years ago, a woman in her 50s ran over a softshell turtle, which is considered a delicacy. After the incident, she said she saw the animals several times around tourist spots in the city.

“I was wondering what a suppon [softshell turtle] was even doing there,” she said.

A number of the suppon turtles have been hit by cars in Isahaya, Nagasaki Prefecture. The species is also frequently being spotted in the city, and the reason for their appearance remains a mystery.

Generally, turtles have a hard shell, but suppon have a soft shell.

Isahaya is one of the most popular places for suppon turtle farming in Japan, and the turtles also live in the Honmyo River, which flows through the city.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

More roadkill

There have been many sightings of the softshell turtles not only in agricultural areas, but also in waterways near city hall and other central areas.

About 70,000 dead animals were disposed of on national highways during the year beginning in April 2019, including 33% for dogs and cats, 26% for tanuki raccoon dogs, 11% for birds and 7% for deer, according to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry. No data can be found for turtles, an indication there are too few cases to appear in the survey.

However, 21 suppon turtles were run over by vehicles on prefectural roads in Isahaya in the year beginning in April 2020, up from 13 of the year before. Ten have been run over from April this year to the end of September.

Few of the turtles have been disposed of outside the city, and since April 2021, no reports have come from anywhere beside Isahaya, according to the Nagasaki prefectural government. In neighboring prefectures, one was disposed of in Fukuoka Prefecture and two were in Okinawa Prefecture.

Various speculations abound regarding why so many turtles have been spotted in Isahaya.

“The city of Isahaya has many rice paddies and waterways, making it a suitable habitat,” said Takanori Matsuo, a professor at Nagasaki Women’s Junior College and an expert on amphibians and reptiles. His research suggests many softshell turtles have been found in agricultural waterways as well as in the Honmyo River.

“They may be thriving in an environment with abundant water and many slow-flowing waterways,” he said.

He added that the species is so reclusive, it is difficult to observe them.

However, as Nagasaki Prefecture is dotted with suppon turtle farms, there is a theory that wild birds have been carrying turtles elsewhere from these farms.

Wild birds are sometimes seen grabbing a turtle and flying away with it, and some turtles have been seen with peck marks on their body, according to a person familiar with the suppon farm business.

“Maybe some of the turtles fell into rice paddies or waterways from the sky after struggling with crows or kites,” the person said.

An official at the Nagasaki prefectural government is calling for drivers to keep an eye out for the turtles, especially when driving in agricultural areas.

City’s history with reptile

The city of Isahaya has a deep connection with turtles. The city emblem was in the shape of three turtles before 2005, when the city merged with the surrounding municipalities.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An emblem of the old Isahaya City that depicts three turtles

The emblem was derived from Takashiro Castle, which was built on a mountain around 1474 and was called Kamejo, or Turtle Castle. Legend has it that when the castle was attacked, the big turtle lurking in the Honmyo River moved under the castle and lifted the whole mountain up to disperse the enemy.

There are statues and reliefs of turtles in the city, and there are also legends that turtles are a “deity’s messenger.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A turtle statue stands at a bridge in central Isahaya.

“We can imagine that turtles were familiar to people and loved here,” said Daisuke Oshima, a specialist of Isahaya Museum of Art and History.

“It’s an inseparable relation.”