Chinese soft-shell turtles found on Wollaston Beach in Quincy last week pose a potential threat as an invasive species to the state, officials said.
Onlookers spotted the turtle, a species native to the waters of eastern Asia, digging in the sand at Wollaston on Labor Day. Members of the New England Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Team came to collect it Tuesday.
A second turtle, believed to be of the same species, was spotted on the beach later in the week, said Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the aquarium, but its whereabouts now are unknown.
Dr. Charles Innis, head veterinarian at the aquarium, said that he was not surprised about the discovery of the turtles.
“We know that this species is widely traded for food and pets, and nonnative turtles [and other reptiles] have been released in Massachusetts in the past,” he said in an e-mail Saturday.
“Softshells are very odd-looking turtles, flat leathery shell, long snorkel-like nose,” he said. Innis said that he has not encountered this species in Massachusetts before.
“I just heard about this yesterday,” said Nigella Hillgarth, New England Aquarium president and chief executive.
“My first reaction was concern because we know that this turtle could get established and become an invasive species,” she said on the phone Saturday.
The turtles are able to survive cold climates in northern Japan, Korea, Manchuria, and in the Russian Far East, according to a statement from the aquarium. “If they do survive the winter, and breed, it would be a problem,” Hillgarth said.
In the United States, the turtles have established populations in Hawaii and Maryland, Hillgarth said. They have also been found in other countries, such as the Philippines.
“If this gets established, like it has in the Philippines, it could eat a lot of small fish, insects, mollusks and cause a serious problem in the ecosystem,” Hillgarth said. The turtles also eat snails, shellfish, crabs, fish detritus, and some plants, according to the aquarium.
Hillgarth said the extent of any potential local effects is unknown, but nonnative species have had detrimental effects in the past.
“A really good parallel example is the green crab,” Hillgarth said, explaining that the abundance of green crabs in Massachusetts affects the ecosystem, as they feed on clams and mussels.
Innis said the turtles “could compete with other native turtles, could carry disease to other native species, [and] could compete for food with other species.”
“The most important message is to not release any non-native pets like that,” Hillgarth said.
For now, the turtle remains in Innis’s care until a permanent home is found with a private licensed collector or with the aquarium, LaCasse said.
The public is encouraged to contact the wildlife control or the New England Aquarium to report any sightings of Chinese soft-shell turtles.