The Big Turtle Year: Update #9

Species #25: Eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina)
Location: Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area (Ocean County, New Jersey)
Date: 14 May 2017

Species #26: Northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin)
Location: Great Bay Blvd. (Ocean County, New Jersey)
Date: 14 May 2017

Species #27: Bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii)
Species #28: Wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta)
Location: Sussex County, New Jersey
Date: 15 May 2017

Species #29: Common map turtle (Graptemys geographica)
Species #30: Northern red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys rubriventris)
Location: Raritan River and D&R Canal (Somerset County, New Jersey)
Date: 15 May 2017
Post by Timothy J. Walsh

Jim Angley with a male eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Jim Angley with a male eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

As part of The Big Turtle Year, George L. Heinrich and I met up with our partner and friend, Jim Angley, in New Jersey. While the Northeast United States may not have the diversity of species that the Southeast has, it more than makes up for it with some of the most enigmatic North American species. George flew in from Florida and I took the train from Connecticut and we hit the ground running by driving down to the New Jersey Pine Barrens. This large expanse of woodland encompasses approximately 1.1 million acres of nutrient-poor sandy soil. This habitat was saved from cultivation due to the fact that normal cash crops were not able to be grown there. The area was preserved in 1978 as the Pinelands National Reserve. Not only did Jim want to show us the beauty of the area, but it is also great habitat for one of our target species, the common box turtle (Terrapene carolina). We stopped at a site within Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area where Jim has frequently seen numerous box turtles in the past. Within about fifteen minutes (and with gunshots ringing in the background) Jim found a beautiful male eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina). This subspecies inhabits much of the woodlands east of the Mississippi River from north Florida to southern Maine. Although still fairly common through much of its range, this species has declined due to forest fragmentation and destruction, as well as, collection for the pet trade. A large factor in their decline is the great number of roadways that now bisect their habitats. Box turtles have very small home ranges (~6.6 acres or roughly 5x the size of a football field). As more and roads are built, box turtles must increasingly have to navigate across them as they seek out food, water, and shelter. Sadly, many never make across the road successfully, especially in high traffic areas. While exploring other nearby areas we also observed a northern black racer (Coluber c. constrictor), a northern red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber), and a large 5+ foot northern pine snake (Pituophis m. melanoleucus).

A particularly attractive male eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

A particularly attractive male eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Deceased female northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Deceased female northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

That evening we drove down Great Bay Boulevard, which transects northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin) habitat. Diamondback terrapins are the only species of turtle that lives entirely in brackish water ecosystems. Seven subspecies range along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to southern Texas. Along its entire range, the species is threatened by coastline development, shoreline armoring, drowning in crap traps, collection for the pet and food trade, as well as adult females and hatchlings being killed on roadways. In many areas as well, nearly 100% of all nests are predated by predators such as raccoon and fox. The site that we visited is one where numerous females come to the roadside to nest, and unfortunately many are killed by cars as they navigate this dangerous area. In many terrapin habitats, the shoreline has been modified to the point where nesting is virtually impossible. Coastal armoring (bulkheads, seawalls, riprap, etc) can make historical nesting areas completely inaccessible to the female terrapins. Roadways which transect these aquatic habitats make for tempting nesting areas as they are above the high tide line and are usually in fairly sunny locations.

Hatchling northern diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys t. terrapin) under tidal debris. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Hatchling northern diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys t. terrapin) under tidal debris. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

This roadway has portions of temporary fencing to keep the turtles safe and off of the road. After braving the hordes of no-see-ums and their painful bites, we found two carapaces of deceased terrapins (probable car struck females) and two live hatchlings. Terrapin eggs in the Northeast hatch around September, yet, often, the young do not exit the nest. Tiny hatchlings will sometimes overwinter in the nest cavity until the following spring when conditions are more appropriate. Both hatchlings were found at the edge of the roadway and were probably drawn out of their nest by heavy rain the previous night. Many hatchlings are killed on roadways either directly by cars or by insolation on the hot pavement before they can make their way to tidal debris. This is where they live for approximately their first year, much like a terrestrial box turtle, feeding on invertebrates and small mollusks.

Hatchling northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin) as found next to the roadway. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Hatchling northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin) as found next to the roadway. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) are a small species (maximum 4.5 inches) as seen here with this fully grown adult in hand. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) are a small species (maximum 4.5 inches) as seen here with this fully grown adult in hand. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

The following day we met up with Brian Zarate (Biologist, New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, Endangered and Nongame Species Program) and his colleague Kevin Pollack. Brian conducts field surveys for bog (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) and wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta). Both are threatened species in New Jersey and face a great deal of pressure from illegal collection for the pet trade throughout their range. As with other sensitive species we have observed during The Big Turtle Year, we will only be stating what county we were in and not divulging the locality. We also take great precaution with these types of species and 'scrub' location data from any photos taken with mobile phones. In this day and age, poachers can obtain locality information from multiple sources such as digital photos, social media, popular writing, and scientific publications. One cannot be too careful to prevent sites from being discovered. In fact, we were lucky enough, even with our credentials, to be taken to these sites to observe these fantastic species.

Male bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) in situ. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Male bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) in situ. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Female bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) showing the distinctive orange head patch. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Female bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) showing the distinctive orange head patch. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Brian Zarate and Kevin Pollack record data on a bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Brian Zarate and Kevin Pollack record data on a bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) habitat showing characteristic shallow streams and grass clumps. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) habitat showing characteristic shallow streams and grass clumps. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Two bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) in habitat. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Two bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) in habitat. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Purple pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) are common at many bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) sites. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Purple pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) are common at many bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) sites. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

In the first site visited (Sussex County, we were able to find eight bog turtles (including one deceased specimen). When we started searching, the air temperature was 56˚F and it was sunny out. This was great weather for finding basking turtles, however, bog turtles are cryptic baskers and search out the rays of the warm sun in hidden spots. Some were tucked into grass clumps with just a portion of their carapaces exposed. One that I found was fully exposed and had her entire shell positioned with the best angle toward the sun. Of the eight specimens we found, five were recaptures and three were previously undiscovered. Turtles which are caught are given a unique mark which identifies them with a number. This is done so that individual movements, weight, growth, and reproduction can be tracked through time. Each bog and wood turtle that we come across during our visit had its GPS coordinates, morphometric measurements, and weight recorded, along with being given a unique mark as above if a new specimen. I also found remnants of a few hatched nests.

Terrestrial wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) habitat. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Terrestrial wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) habitat. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Later that day, we traveled to another site in Sussex County to search for wood turtles. Wood turtles are medium-sized (up to about 9 inches) and live within a mosaic of habitats. It seasonally can be found in streams, woodlands, fields, and even higher elevation ridges. This time of year, the turtles are exiting the streams and are moving around on land. Within a few minutes of searching Jim spotted an individual diving into the stream from the bank, a few minutes later he would spot another. Soon after, we came across two females (unmarked, new specimens) basking in tall grass and briars. Later we found a large male (1,464 grams). It was great to see that a site which has been surveyed so much have previously undiscovered individuals being found. Wood turtles face numerous threats such as habitat destruction and fragmentation, road mortality, and collection for the pet trade. Being an animal that moves through large areas of diverse landscape it is constantly faced with these threats.

A particularly large and handsome male wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

A particularly large and handsome male wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Male wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Male wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

George L. Heinrich, Brian Zarate, and Jim Angley recording data on a wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

George L. Heinrich, Brian Zarate, and Jim Angley recording data on a wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Delaware and Raritan Canal (Sussex County, New Jersey). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Delaware and Raritan Canal (Sussex County, New Jersey). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

When we are traveling and searching for turtles, we try and make the most of our time in the field. Even after being out for many hours, the sun was still shining! Jim, George, and I headed to the Raritan River and Delaware and Raritan Canal. This canal is adjacent to the Raritan River and is used as a drinking water reservoir and was excavated by hand using Chinese and Irish immigrants in the 1830's. Today, it is flanked with hiking and biking trails, fishing spots, and is a popular area for still-water kayaking. It also contains two of our target species, the northern red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys rubriventris) and common map turtle (Graptemys geographica). This population of common map turtles was recently documented as a range extension by Jim (and colleague, Kurt Buhlmann). Please read about this study here. We observed more than a dozen of both species basking in both the river and canal. We also spotted two eastern painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) and one non-native red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). Unfortunately, the lighting by this time was not great for photography and we were not able to obtain good photos.

Common map turtles (Graptemys geographica) and northern red-bellied cooters (Pseudemys rubriventris) basking together in the Delaware and Raritan Canal (Somerset County, New Jersey) on a separate trip. Photograph by James R. Angley. 

Common map turtles (Graptemys geographica) and northern red-bellied cooters (Pseudemys rubriventris) basking together in the Delaware and Raritan Canal (Somerset County, New Jersey) on a separate trip. Photograph by James R. Angley. 

The following day we met back up with Brian Zarate to visit additional bog and wood turtle sites. This time we were joined by Eric Goode, Maurice Rodrigues, James Liu (Turtle Conservancy), Robert Zappalorti (Herpetological Associates), and Craig Stanford (University of Southern California and Chairman, IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group). The first site that we visited was on private land. Habitat for the bog turtle (and wood turtle) is challenging to conserve and survey as it is made up of a mix of public and private ownership. State wildlife staff, such as Brian, have to carefully maintain good relationships with landowners in order to have access to these lands and it is great to see these individuals take an interest in protecting imperiled species.

Common garter snake (Thamnophis s. sirtalis) basking in the afternoon sun. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Common garter snake (Thamnophis s. sirtalis) basking in the afternoon sun. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

This site contains a large population of bog turtles but is highly challenging to survey. Invasive Phragmites grass covers much of the site as well as cattail (Typha sp.). When searching this site, both plants tower overhead and make seeing anything on the ground nearly impossible. Members of the group were, however, able to find four wood turtles (all unmarked). Other species seen were meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus), garter snake (Thamnophis s. sirtalis), northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon), and eastern milksnake (Lampropeltis t. triangulum). In addition to the Phragmites, another invasive plant, purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) are quite harmful to this type of habitat as they both can degrade wetlands due to their water absorption characteristics.

Bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) site covered in cattail (Typha sp.) Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) site covered in cattail (Typha sp.) Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

The second site that we visited was somewhat picturesque, with green fields and rolling hills in the surrounding landscape. Two bog turtle specimens were found, a recaptured male and an unmarked female. The third and final site was a wetland behind a shopping center, not exactly where you would think to look for a threatened species! Three bog turtles (two new and one recapture) were found. All in all, this was a fantastic trip and we were fortunate enough to be in the company of great turtle people. The highlight for me was certainly viewing bog turtles in the wild. I had previous worked with them in captivity, at the Tennessee Aquarium, and even bred them, but seeing them in their natural environment and learning about their conservation challenges was rewarding. The only thing that put a damper on the trip, and I hesitate to mention it, was the vast amount of ticks at the various sites! At times we were removing 15-20 from our clothing at once! The Northeast had a very mild winter which makes the spring very bountiful with these parasitic arachnids. Luckily, the vast majority were dog ticks and not the Lyme disease-carrying deer tick.

The following day Jim, George, and I headed into New York City. We stopped in at the Osteology Prep Lab at the American Museum of Natural History and perused a few exhibit halls. We spent a lot of time in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall and John Burroughs Corridor learning about these two great naturalists. We also made a visit to Central Park to do some turtle watching. We walked to Belvedere Castle to get a good overview of Turtle Pond. This pond is habitat for eight species of turtle, the vast majority being non-native. These are all released pets and their progeny. The most numerous species is the red-eared slider for which we observed well over 60 individuals. We also spotted one Mississippi map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica kohnii), one painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), and one red-bellied turtle (either Pseudemys rubriventris or P. nelsoni).

A view of Turtle Pond (Central Park, NYC) from Belvedere Castle with the South Lawn and Mannhattan in the background. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

A view of Turtle Pond (Central Park, NYC) from Belvedere Castle with the South Lawn and Mannhattan in the background. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

This was a long but rewarding trip and we were excited to add six new species for The Big Turtle Year. Next, we travelled to Massachusetts to visit two sites associated with the northern red-bellied turtle. Even though we have already added this species to our list, there is something very special going on with this turtle in that state. Stay tuned!

The Big Turtle Year: Update #8

Species #24: Loggerhead musk turtle (Sternotherus m. minor)
Location: Rainbow River (Marion County, Florida)
Date: 13 May 2017
Post by George L. Heinrich

The weather forecast was poor, but my students and I decided to paddle on Rainbow River nevertheless. Rainbow is my favorite Florida waterway and home to nine species of turtles. For the past seven months, I have taught Turtle Science, a course for adults offered through Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida), and this was the final day. Less than an hour after launching our kayaks and canoes the weather started deteriorating, but we continued upriver. Some of the students and I snorkeled at a few points along the way because I really needed to see a loggerhead musk turtle (Sternotherus m. minor) for The Big Turtle Year and it’s a common species on the Rainbow. We see dozens of these kinosternid turtles on an average day, but we saw minimal turtle activity that day. So, I was excited when I found a very large-headed, male loggerhead musk turtle hiding under a log with just a small section of exposed carapace. That single turtle moved our species count to 24. Only two more turtles were observed that day, another loggerhead musk turtle in a side creek and an unidentified cooter (Pseudemys sp.) swimming underwater. I look forward to the next visit being on a sunny day.

Adult male loggerhead musk turtle (Sternotherus m. minor) at Rainbow River (Marion County, Florida). Photograph by Andrew Farren.

Adult male loggerhead musk turtle (Sternotherus m. minor) at Rainbow River (Marion County, Florida). Photograph by Andrew Farren.

The Big Turtle Year: Update #7

Species #22: Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata)
Location: Riverside County, California
Date: 6 May 2017

Species #23: Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)
Location: Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California)
Date: 7 May 2017
Post by George L. Heinrich

During my return flight from Los Angeles to Tampa, I found myself reminiscing about the three days that I had just spent searching for wild turtles in southern California. Although I was born in Bellflower in Los Angeles County, my parents relocated our family to Connecticut just before my first birthday. While growing up in southern New England, I had the opportunity to watch spotted turtles and wood turtles in the local woods, and to develop my love for wild chelonians and their associated habitats. I had returned to California twice for turtle conferences many years back, but this recent trip was the first opportunity to solely focus on exploring natural areas of the Golden State. It was a long way to travel for two species, but both were needed to advance the species count for The Big Turtle Year to 23.

The Big Turtle Year is a large and complex project with many moving parts. The strategy that Tim Walsh and I have used to organize this year-long conservation education initiative is to have turtle biologists and conservationists from throughout the country assist with logistics for their respective states and regions. I had asked our old friend, Michael Bargeron (California Turtle and Tortoise Society; www.turtlesociety.org), to be responsible for planning and to address logistical concerns in order to assure that we would see both the Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) and western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) in California. It was clear that Michael had put the required time into the task as everything ran as smooth as glass. Just like with Texas, we had picked the right person for the job.

Adult male red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) at Polliwog Park (Manhattan Beach, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Adult male red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) at Polliwog Park (Manhattan Beach, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Upon arrival in Los Angeles, Michael took me to visit Polliwog Park in Manhattan Beach where I had the opportunity see hundreds of non-native red eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans). After the novelty of having a pet turtle diminishes, people often release them into local ponds where they may compete for resources with native species. Thanks to the pet trade, this invasive species can be seen well outside of its natural range and in many countries around the world. See The Big Turtle Year Update #5 written by Tim Walsh for more information on red-eared sliders.

Polliwog Park (Manhattan Beach, California), home to a large population of introduced red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Polliwog Park (Manhattan Beach, California), home to a large population of introduced red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Diane Brouhard climbing through cattails at a western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) site in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Diane Brouhard climbing through cattails at a western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) site in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Jonathon Reinig (Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District) searching for western pond turtles (Actinemys marmorata) in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Jonathon Reinig (Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District) searching for western pond turtles (Actinemys marmorata) in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

The next day, Diane Brouhard and Lydia Salinas (two more longtime friends and members of the California Turtle and Tortoise Society) joined Michael and me to search for western pond turtles with Jonathon Reinig of the Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District (www.wrc-rca.org). The District's work focuses on managing public-owned lands which support many state and federally listed species in this rapidly developing county located southeast of Los Angeles. We visited four sites each quite different in appearance and known to support western pond turtles. Each location exhibited signs of human impacts, both past (agricultural land) and present (adjacent development). Although the first site was the wildest in appearance, it was not there that we found species #22, rather it was on public-owned land located near the entrance to a subdivision and adjacent to a major road. Our single sighting of a western pond turtle on that day was of an adult basking at the base of dead cattails.

This medium-sized emydid turtle occurs in Washington, Oregon, and California, and barely enters Mexico (northern Baja California). It appears to be extirpated in both Nevada and Canada. Western pond turtles are the only remaining freshwater turtle species native to California. Formerly in the genus Clemmys, the western pond turtle is a listed species in all states within its U.S. range (Species of Special Concern in California and federally listed as a Species of Concern). Western pond turtle populations are in serious decline and in need of continued strategic conservation efforts. Anthropogenic threats, including habitat loss, agricultural activities, overgrazing, highway mortality, introduced predators, and illegal commercial exploitation for food have all impacted this Pacific Coast turtle. In addition, shell disease has become an issue in some parts of its range and of significant concern is the tremendous impact that lengthy droughts have had on this species.

Lydia Salinas exploring western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Lydia Salinas exploring western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Protected site where we located species #22: western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Protected site where we located species #22: western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Entrance to the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Entrance to the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Michael, Diane, and I traveled to Mojave, California late that evening so that we could take advantage of the cooler morning hours while searching for Mojave desert tortoises at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (www.tortoise-tracks.org) in nearby California City on the following day. This conservation land was established in 1979 and protects about 12 square miles of desert habitat, and has long been on my list of places to visit. One of four tortoise species that occur in the United States, it can be found north and west of the Colorado River in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. The species also occurs in Mexico. It is a ‘protected’ species in all states within its U.S. range and is federally listed as Threatened.

Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) habitat at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) habitat at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

George L. Heinrich with species #23: Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by Michael Bargeron.

George L. Heinrich with species #23: Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by Michael Bargeron.

The temperature at 7:15 the next morning was a cool 43.7 degrees F, not ideal for finding reptiles. However, by 11:45 am the temperature had risen to 60 degrees F and we found our first tortoise right along the side of the trail. A couple of hours later we located a second tortoise sitting in the shade under a bush. Three species of lizards were active throughout our visit: desert horned lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos), western whiptail lizard (Aspidocelis tigris), and side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana). To learn more about desert tortoises, please visit the Desert Tortoise Council’s website at www.deserttortoise.org.

Desert horned lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Desert horned lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Michael Bargeron and Rosi Dagit discussing western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) conservation in the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Michael Bargeron and Rosi Dagit discussing western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) conservation in the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Our third day in the field found Michael, Diane, Lydia, and I meeting up with Rosi Dagit, Senior Conservation Biologist with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (www.rcdsmm.org). Rosi is a fascinating biologist who studies penguins, southern steelhead trout, and western pond turtles. I first met Rosi while visiting her study site back in 2003 and I was looking forward to spending another day in the field with her. It was wonderful hiking on the same trails as during my earlier visit, enjoying a magnificent landscape, seeing endangered plants, and most of all documenting species #23 (three western pond turtles basking in a pile of tree limbs over a pond in the distance). Later, back at her office, we had an opportunity to examine and photograph a couple of western pond turtles that were being rehabilitated after a predator attack, as well as several shells from predated turtles. Water issues are of concern for many U.S. species and the western pond turtle is no exception. The long drought in California has had a severe impact on these imperiled turtles; with dropping water levels they can become desiccated in the drying mud and also be exposed to predators. To learn more about this subject, please view Rosi’s article: click here.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Despite cooler than normal temperatures for this time of year, we still found the two species for which I had traveled across the country. This was a great trip and provided a very welcome opportunity to reconnect with old friends. I will have wonderful memories of hiking in the Mojave Desert and the Santa Monica Mountains for many years to come.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) from the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California); currently being rehabilitated after a predator attack. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) from the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California); currently being rehabilitated after a predator attack. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) from the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California); currently being rehabilitated after a predator attack. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) from the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California); currently being rehabilitated after a predator attack. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

The Big Turtle Year: Update #6

Species #10: Mississippi map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica kohnii)
Location: Trinity River (Dallas County, Texas)
Date: 23 April 2017

Species #11: Sabine map turtle (Graptemys sabinensis)
Location: Sabine River/Highway 69 (Wood County, Texas)
Date: 23 April 2017

Species #12: Texas cooter (Pseudemys texana)
Species #13: Texas map turtle (Graptemys versa)
Species #14: Common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)
Location: County Line BBQ (Austin, Travis County, Texas)
Date: 23 April 2017

Species #15: Cagle’s map turtle (Graptemys caglei)
Location: Palmetto State Park (Gonzales County, Texas)
Date: 24 April 2017

Species #16: Pallid spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera pallida)
Location: Harris County, Texas
Date: 24 April 2017

Species #17: Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)
Location: Harris County, Texas
Date: 25 April 2017

Species #18: Texas tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri)
Location: Hidalgo County, Texas
Date: 26 April 2017

Species #19: Rio Grande cooter (Pseudemys gorzugi)
Location: San Felipe Creek/Highway 90 East (Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas)
Date: 26 April 2017

Species #20: Mexican plateau mud turtle (Kinosternon hirtipes murrayi)
Location: Presidio County, Texas
Date: 27 April 2017

Species #21: Big Bend slider (Trachemys gaigeae)
Location: Big Bend Ranch State Park (Brewster County, Texas)
Date: 28 April 2017
Post by George L. Heinrich

Children watching turtles, a popular activity at County Line BBQ (Austin, Travis County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Children watching turtles, a popular activity at County Line BBQ (Austin, Travis County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Texas is big! Rich in land and habitat diversity, the Lone Star State is home to 30 species of turtles (50.8% of the diversity in the United States) and has more endemic taxa of chelonians than any other state. I recently joined herpetologist Carl J. Franklin (University of Texas at Arlington) for seven days of fieldwork which allowed us to observe 12 species in the wild. We traveled 2,430 miles by truck while exploring several river systems, parks, and preserves throughout Texas, as well as the ecologically rich Lower Rio Grande Valley and Big Bend region.

Almost immediately after I landed at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, we were on our way east to search for turtles. By day’s end, we had located five species: Mississippi map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica kohnii), Sabine map turtle (Graptemys sabinensis), Texas map turtle (Graptemys versa), Texas cooter (Pseudemys texana), and common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus). A long day on the road ending in Austin (Travis County) had advanced The Big Turtle Year species count to 13. The Texas map turtle is a state endemic and occurs in the Colorado River system from the central part of the state to nearly the Gulf of Mexico. Another endemic is the Texas cooter which occurs in the Colorado, Brazos, Guadalupe, Neuces, and San Antonio watersheds. Tim Walsh and I study another species in that genus, the Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis), in Florida, so this was a species that I really wanted to see in the wild.

Mississippi map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica kohnii) basking on shoreline of the Trinity River (Dallas County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mississippi map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica kohnii) basking on shoreline of the Trinity River (Dallas County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Texas cooter (Pseudemys texana) swimming at County Line BBQ (Austin, Travis County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Texas cooter (Pseudemys texana) swimming at County Line BBQ (Austin, Travis County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

George L. Heinrich with an adult male alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by Jordan Gray.

George L. Heinrich with an adult male alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by Jordan Gray.

On day two, we observed a Texas cooter basking on the shoreline of the San Marcos River in Palmetto State Park (Gonzales County). A stop at a second location within the park got us our first two endemic Cagle’s map turtles (Graptemys caglei), both basking on the same log. Later that day, Carl and I observed a Pallid spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera pallida) and a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) at an undisclosed location in Harris County. Eric Munscher (Director of the Turtle Survival Alliance, North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group) joined us to set three hoop net traps baited with tilapia. This location is a new alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) study site for that research group and they have captured all size classes during past trapping sessions. The three of us, along with Jordan Gray (Turtle Survival Alliance), checked the traps early the next morning and found two large alligator snapping turtles waiting to be processed and released; the largest one weighed 88.4 pounds! Of note, this cool species can grow significantly larger and has a fleshy appendage on their tongue that allows them to lure for fish and other live prey. I greatly appreciate Eric and Jordan making it possible for us to observe these amazing animals in wild Texas. Now that the alligator snapping turtle has been split into three species, I still have two more to find within their respective ranges in Florida. I’m looking forward to joining Dr. Jerry Johnston (Santa Fe College) for an upcoming night snorkel trip to search for the Suwannee alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys suwanniensis).

Basking pallid spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera pallida; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Basking pallid spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera pallida; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Adult male alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Adult male alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Eric Munscher, Carl J. Franklin, and Jordan Gray weighing an adult male alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Eric Munscher, Carl J. Franklin, and Jordan Gray weighing an adult male alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

George L. Heinrich with a large juvenile Texas tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri; Hidalgo County, Texas). Photograph by Carl J. Franklin.

George L. Heinrich with a large juvenile Texas tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri; Hidalgo County, Texas). Photograph by Carl J. Franklin.

The next day found us in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (Hidalgo County) searching for a Texas tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri) with herpetologist Mayra Oyervides. Only a single, large juvenile specimen was located, but that was enough to get us species #18. This smallest of the six species of North American tortoises also occurs in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Fully protected by Texas law, it remains threatened by habitat loss, agricultural practices, road mortality, and entanglement in fences. The construction of any barriers, such as walls or fences, along the United States-Mexico border would be detrimental to the Texas tortoise, as well as many other species of turtles and wildlife.

Rio Grande cooter (Pseudemys gorzugi) habitat within golf course along San Felipe Creek (Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Rio Grande cooter (Pseudemys gorzugi) habitat within golf course along San Felipe Creek (Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

A visit to two locations on San Felipe Creek in Del Rio (Val Verde County) produced species #19, the Rio Grande cooter (Pseudemys gorzugi). This beautiful, rather small cooter occurs in lakes and small rivers in the Rio Grande River system, as well as waterways associated with the Pecos River. Unfortunately, populations of this species have been severely reduced.

Basking Rio Grande cooters (Pseudemys gorzugi) at San Felipe Creek (Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Basking Rio Grande cooters (Pseudemys gorzugi) at San Felipe Creek (Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Adult female red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) at San Felipe Creek (Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Adult female red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) at San Felipe Creek (Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mexican plateau mud turtle (Kinosternon hirtipes murrayi) habitat (Presidio County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mexican plateau mud turtle (Kinosternon hirtipes murrayi) habitat (Presidio County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

The small Mexican plateau mud turtle, also known at the rough-footed mud turtle (Kinosternon hirtipes murrayi), our species #20, is one of the rarest turtles in the United States. Most of this species range is in Mexico and only a small population is located just north of the border in west Texas. Of all the Texas species that we targeted, this was the one that I was most excited to see in the wild. Management practices by private landowners (~96% in Texas), water issues, and a very limited range are all significant threats to this species. Little is known about the Mexican plateau mud turtle in the United States and increased field studies and conservation efforts are urgently needed.

Basking Mexican plateau mud turtle (Kinosternon hirtipes murrayi; Presidio County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Basking Mexican plateau mud turtle (Kinosternon hirtipes murrayi; Presidio County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

A visit to the Big Bend region of west Texas also provided an opportunity to observe Big Bend sliders (Trachemys gaigeae) in the Rio Grande River. Formerly considered a subspecies of the common slider (Trachemys scripta), populations of this attractive turtle have been depleted by collectors. I was stunned by the beauty of the Rio Grande River, particularly in the Big Bend region.

Carl J. Franklin searching for Cagle’s map turtles (Graptemys caglei) at Palmetto State Park (Gonzales County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Carl J. Franklin searching for Cagle’s map turtles (Graptemys caglei) at Palmetto State Park (Gonzales County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

I want to end this post by saying that Carl's knowledge of Texas turtles is immense and he clearly delivered for The Big Turtle Year. To learn more about Texas turtles, please visit Carl's website: www.texasturtles.org. We have invited Carl to write a guest blog about Texas turtles and hope to be able to post that along with some of his photos soon.

With the species count now standing at 21, The Big Turtle Year next travels to California to locate two species, the western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) and Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). Stay tuned for more!

The Big Turtle Year: Update #5

Species #9: Spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata)
Location: Central Connecticut Valley (Middlesex County, Connecticut)
Date: 30 March 2017
Post by Timothy J. Walsh

Central Connecticut Valley wetland (Middlesex County, Connecticut). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Central Connecticut Valley wetland (Middlesex County, Connecticut). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

The state of Connecticut is certainly no hotspot for chelonian diversity, but it does contain a wonderful assembledge of northeastern species. Twelve turtle species can be found in the state, including Long Island Sound. A portion of my job with the Bruce Museum (Greenwich, Connecticut) is administering the Citizen Science project, Connecticut Turtle Atlas. This project encourages the public to help map turtle distribution throughout the state. The information gathered from these observations will be used to map distributions, identify important habitats, locate areas of nesting abundance, and detect roadways with high traffic-related mortality. To date, the project has 266 observations of 12 species by 42 people.

Barrie Robbins-Pianka and Tim Walsh with a male spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Barrie Robbins-Pianka and Tim Walsh with a male spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

One of the project's most prolific observers is Barrie Robbins-Pianka. Barrie is a nature enthusiast and conservationist. She has worked diligently over the last few years to try to end the harvest of common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) in Connecticut. George L. Heinrich and I were able to meet up with Barrie to visit one of her favorite turtle sites. Due to one species in particular that inhabits the area, we will be intentionally vague in describing where we were. To further help protect this population, I have used special software to delete the location data from my cell phone pictures to prevent the localities from being found out. Poachers have been known to use scientific publications, cell phone photos, and popular articles to locate study sites, and many researchers have lost study animals to this threat. The black market trade in turtles for pets is a serious threat to many species in the United States.

George L. Heinrich with a male spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata). An ephemeral wetland can be seen in the background. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

George L. Heinrich with a male spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata). An ephemeral wetland can be seen in the background. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Four species can be found at this site, eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys p. picta), common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), and the imperiled spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata). I was excited to have the opportunity to see spotted turtles, as I have never seen this species in the wild. George was also full of anticipation as he has not viewed spotted turtles in Connecticut since growing up here in the early 1970s! We met with Barrie and hiked into a wide valley to a riverside wetland which is bisected by an abandoned railroad. Barrie frequently encounters all four species as they cross the tracks while moving from one water body to the other. Barrie did see a spotted turtle yesterday and marked the location with a stick. Unfortunately, when we found the spot the turtle was nowhere to be found. We walked the tracks for about a mile and viewed muskrats, various waterfowl, and over twenty eastern painted turtles. We were a bit disappointed as we did not find any spotted turtles, so we began our hike back to the vehicle. While walking, I noticed an area of disturbed leaves next to the trestle and I moved my foot through the pile. To my surprise, an adult male spotted turtle was resting underneath! The air temperature was a chilly 51° F, but the sun was shining brightly; the turtle may have been absorbing heat radiating off the metal rail. The three of us were quite pleased with the find and Barrie stated that this specimen was the same one that she found the day before. We photographed the turtle and placed it back in the leaf pile.

Abandoned railroad adjacent to river valley wetland (Middlesex County, Connecticut). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Abandoned railroad adjacent to river valley wetland (Middlesex County, Connecticut). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Male spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) resting under leaf pile on abandoned railroad tracks. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Male spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) resting under leaf pile on abandoned railroad tracks. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

The Big Turtle Year: Update #4

Species #7: Eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys p. picta)
Species #8: Common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)
Location: Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut) 
Date: 29 March 2017
Post by Timothy J. Walsh

Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Today, George L. Heinrich and I visited Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut). This 32 acre urban park was established in 1927. The former tidal marsh was slated for development as a subdivision when a local girl, Helen Binney, convinced her father to purchase the land and preserve it. The land was preserved, but not in its natural state. Instead, it was turned into a cultivated and highly manicured park for the enjoyment of local residents. Helen Binney (Kitchel) went on to become an environmental champion and a Connecticut State Representative; one of her many fights was against roadside billboards and the negative affects they had on the scenery.

Although this type of modified park is a mere shadow of its wild self, these are sometimes the only natural areas people have access to, especially children. Binney Park has a nice-sized population of turtles consisting of three species. I am always pleased, while visiting, to hear a child exclaim "look mommy, turtles!" with great excitement. While I sometimes hear inaccurate information stated about the turtles, I am just happy that people get to enjoy the wonder of these amazing animals in a wild situation.

An adult male red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) basks in the spring sun at Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

An adult male red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) basks in the spring sun at Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Like many urban parks containing water bodies, there is an abundance of non-native red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans). Featured heavily in the pet trade, this species is often released after outgrowing their novelty and tanks. They may cause damage to local turtle populations by competing for food, basking, and nesting resources. At this site, red-eared sliders outnumber native painted turtles nearly six to one. Binney Park is a great spot to view the large, prehistoric-looking common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and I have observed 13 individuals at one time. The snapping turtles are not shy and will often approach people on the shoreline. It is obvious that they occasionally receive 'snacks' from park visitors. 

An eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys p. picta) was quite creative in selecting a basking spot at Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut), seen here on top of a common snapping turtle's (Chelydra serpentina) carapace! Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

An eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys p. picta) was quite creative in selecting a basking spot at Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut), seen here on top of a common snapping turtle's (Chelydra serpentina) carapace! Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Although it is technically spring, winter still has a good hold on the weather in the Northeast. It was 51° F and quite sunny. Most turtles in this region are just now emerging from hibernation and some are quite sluggish with swollen eyes. This is a difficult time for them to avoid predators and find food, but the most important thing for them right now is finding basking areas to absorb ample sunshine to kick-start their metabolism. In total, we were able to view four eastern painted turtles (Chrysemys p. picta), two common snapping turtles, and 23 red-eared sliders.

During a previous visit to Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut), a young boy was curious about an approaching snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

During a previous visit to Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut), a young boy was curious about an approaching snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

The Big Turtle Year: Update #3

Species #5: Florida red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys nelsoni)
Species #6: Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis)
Location: Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County, Florida) 
Date: 19 March 2017
Post by George L. Heinrich

After leaving St. Petersburg at 5:00 am and driving 189 miles north to Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County, Florida), Andrew Farren and I joined two of The Big Turtle Year’s partners: Dr. Jerry Johnston (Santa Fe College) and Eric Munscher (Turtle Survival Alliance - North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group) for a turtle survey on the spring-fed Ichetucknee River. This research project began in 2013 and is led by Jerry and Eric, along with co-principal investigator Dr. Joseph Mitchell (Mitchell Ecological Research Service). Nearly 60 individuals who really like turtles were there to canoe, snorkel, and capture as many as possible. Andrew and I found a Florida red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys nelsoni) and a Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) swimming in the thick eel grass that covered most of the bottom of the section that we worked.

The fifth species of The Big Turtle Year, a large, adult female Florida red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys nelsoni), at Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County, Florida). Note the cusp on the upper jaw, a distinguishing characteristic not present in the other two species of cooters that occur in Florida. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

The fifth species of The Big Turtle Year, a large, adult female Florida red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys nelsoni), at Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County, Florida). Note the cusp on the upper jaw, a distinguishing characteristic not present in the other two species of cooters that occur in Florida. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

TBTY partner Andrew Farren holding a female Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis), the sixth species of The Big Turtle Year, at Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

TBTY partner Andrew Farren holding a female Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis), the sixth species of The Big Turtle Year, at Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

That brings our count up to six species and completes the three species of Pseudemys which occur in Florida. Four additional species were captured by other snorkelers: peninsula cooter (Pseudemys floridana peninsularis), yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys s. scripta), loggerhead musk turtle (Sternotherus m. minor), and common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus). I had already observed the first two species in February (see The Big Turtle Year: Update #2). Just to keep things honest, the musk turtles were not included in the count for The Big Turtle Year since I neither saw nor captured either species. In fact, the first time that I saw them they were in large plastic containers at the processing station. I will be chasing turtles on three central Florida rivers during the next two months, so I expect to get the two species of musk turtles at that time. 

The TSA - North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group just started their weeklong spring break sample of seven Florida springs. To learn more about this energetic research group and how you can support their important research and conservation work, please visit the following: 

www.facebook.com/naftrg/

www.turtlesurvival.org/component/…/term/summary/27/4…

To learn more about Dr. Jerry Johnston’s and Eric Munscher’s work, please visit our Partners page.

You can also learn about some earlier turtle work that was conducted on the Ichetucknee River here: www.herpconbio.org/Vo…/Issue_1/Chapin_Meylan_2011.pdf.

TBTY partner Dr. Jerry Johnston (Santa Fe College) measuring the plastron of a Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) at Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

TBTY partner Dr. Jerry Johnston (Santa Fe College) measuring the plastron of a Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) at Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

TBTY partner Eric Munscher (TSA - North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group) measuring a musk turtle (Sternotherus sp.) at Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

TBTY partner Eric Munscher (TSA - North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group) measuring a musk turtle (Sternotherus sp.) at Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Dr. Joseph Mitchell (Mitchell Ecological Research Service) measuring the plastron of a juvenile Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) at Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Dr. Joseph Mitchell (Mitchell Ecological Research Service) measuring the plastron of a juvenile Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) at Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

TBTY partner Andrew Farren photographing an adult female yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys s. scripta) at Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

TBTY partner Andrew Farren photographing an adult female yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys s. scripta) at Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Turtle Survival Alliance Report from the Field

Meet Carl James Franklin (Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center, The University of Texas at Arlington Department of Biology), one of our partners with The Big Turtle Year project. George L. Heinrich will join him in Texas in late April to search for dozens of species that occur in the Lone Star State. It should be quite an adventure! Please visit the following Turtle Survival Alliance sites to learn about the incredible conservation work they do for turtles around the world.

www.turtlesurvival.org

www.facebook.com/TurtleSurvival/

The Big Turtle Year: Update #2

Species #2: Peninsula cooter (Pseudemys floridana peninsularis)
Species #3: Florida softshell turtle (Apalone ferox)
Species #4: Red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)
Location: Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida)
Date: 11 February 2017
Post by George L. Heinrich

I am back from a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands where I saw lots of really big turtles, but that’s another story and unrelated to The Big Turtle Year. Since my return to Florida, Tim Walsh and I have continued to work with our project partners on planning and logistical concerns that need to be addressed in order for us to find 58 more species during the current calendar year.

Our strategy is to locate as many species as possible in Florida before we begin visiting other regions of the country in the spring. Florida’s diverse habitats support 27 of the 59 species (45.8%) known to occur in the United States. The more species that we can locate in Florida, the less species we will have to search for in other states where they also occur. This will make it possible to focus on other species when we are out of state and decrease the overall cost of the project. We have now raised $3,000 and are very grateful to our sponsors. Individuals who wish to support this conservation education project can donate at our GoFundMe site (www.gofundme.com/BigTurtleYear) or mail checks directly to FTCT as many individuals have done.

We picked up three more species today during the field session of a Turtle Science course that I am currently teaching at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida). This ecologically rich, urban nature preserve supports 10 species of native turtles. With the temperature reaching the low 70s by early afternoon and a sunny sky, nine students joined me in a search for aquatic turtles at a relatively small, man-made, freshwater pond. One peninsula cooter (Pseudemys floridana peninsularis), two Florida softshell turtles (Apalone ferox), and two red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) were observed surface basking and swimming. Although the latter species is native to north Florida, it is not native to the Tampa Bay region. Further, the subspecies T. s. elegans, is not native to the state at all. Due to the pet trade, red-eared sliders are now common in many locations outside of their native range and unfortunately can be found in several countries around the world. In addition to the above, we saw an adult gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) foraging along the side of the trail. Our first four species were all observed at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, but we will be visiting several other sites between now and the end of March.

The second turtle of The Big Turtle Year, an adult peninsula cooter (Pseudemys floridana peninsularis) at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida). Photograph by William Rivera.

The second turtle of The Big Turtle Year, an adult peninsula cooter (Pseudemys floridana peninsularis) at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida). Photograph by William Rivera.

An adult Florida softshell turtle (Apalone ferox) documented at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida). Photograph by William Rivera.

An adult Florida softshell turtle (Apalone ferox) documented at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida). Photograph by William Rivera.

A non-native red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) observed at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida). Photograph by William Rivera.

A non-native red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) observed at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida). Photograph by William Rivera.

The Big Turtle Year: Update #1

Species #1: Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)
Location: Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida)
Date: 1 January 2017
Post by George L. Heinrich

One down and 58 species to go. Today was the first day of the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust’s new initiative, The Big Turtle Year, which will be occurring throughout the United States during 2017. Long in the planning, this conservation education project will increase awareness regarding the status of these often overlooked and ecologically significant animals. Individuals who wish to support our efforts can donate at our GoFundMe site (www.gofundme.com/BigTurtleYear) or mail checks directly to FTCT as many individuals have done.

George L. Heinrich with the first turtle of The Big Turtle Year, an adult female gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida). Photograph by Andrew Farren.

George L. Heinrich with the first turtle of The Big Turtle Year, an adult female gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida). Photograph by Andrew Farren.

As planned, we started our year-long quest at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida) with a search for gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus). This location was selected for symbolic reasons as it is a special place that is close to my heart. I have studied the herpetofauna of this preserve for over 25 years, and have conducted several burrow surveys of this fragmented population (estimate of 137 tortoises) located within a city-owned nature preserve. Data collected is being used to guide upland habitat management efforts and to address concerns regarding minimum viable population and minimum reserve size.

The first turtle of The Big Turtle Year, an adult female gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

The first turtle of The Big Turtle Year, an adult female gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

I was joined by two friends, Andrew Farren (project partner) and Jaime Gonzalez (current student in my Turtle Science course), on the upland trails in an area known to have a large number of tortoise burrows. The temperature reached 79 degrees by 1:00 pm and we observed a total of nine tortoises over the next 1.5 hours, including a hatchling at a burrow which I have been monitoring for the past two months. I consider this to be a great start for what should be a great year. Happy New Year to everyone!

An adult male gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

An adult male gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.