The Big Turtle Year: Update #15

Species #45: Arizona mud turtle (Kinosternon arizonense)
Location: Southern Arizona
Date: 3 October 2017

Species #46: Sonoyta mud turtle (Kinosternon sonoriense longifemorale)
Location: Quitobaquito Springs, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (Arizona)
Date: 4 October 2017

Species #47: Sonoran desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai)
Location: North of Phoenix, Arizona
Date: 5 October 2017
Post by George L. Heinrich

State wildlife agency logo. 

It was my third trip to southern Arizona, all of which were during the past five years and for turtle-related reasons. I was returning this time to search for three species still needed for The Big Turtle Year (TBTY) and was particularly excited because the trip offered a chance to see two species of mud turtles which occur on both sides of the international border. In addition, we needed to find a Sonoran desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai) which would complete the four U.S. species in the family Testudinidae. Cristina A. Jones (Turtles Project Coordinator, Arizona Game and Fish Department) and I had planned this trip for several months. We were originally scheduled to do this part of TBTY two months earlier, but complications (see Update #14) forced us to postpone the trip. Perhaps it was for the best because our delayed trip was smooth as glass, in large part due to Cristina’s knowledge of Arizona turtles and her admirable organizational skills. To her, I am most grateful. An added bonus to the trip was access to great Mexican food of which I am a fan.

Cristina A. Jones (Turtles Project Coordinator, Arizona Game and Fish Department) holding an Arizona mud turtle (Kinosternon arizonense) in southern Arizona. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Cristina A. Jones (Turtles Project Coordinator, Arizona Game and Fish Department) holding an Arizona mud turtle (Kinosternon arizonense) in southern Arizona. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

One of many authentic Mexican restaurants visited during the trip. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

One of many authentic Mexican restaurants visited during the trip. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

While it’s true that Arizona is less species rich (only seven species from three families) than southeastern states, it is clear that Arizona is a player in the turtle conservation game. Three species require management and conservation programs, including international cooperative efforts with Mexico. Further, there are three non-native species established in the state. The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) is involved with many aspects of turtle conservation and plays an important role in conserving regional species. For a full list of Arizona’s turtle species, please visit the website listed at the end of this blog.

Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) in a typical Arizona landscape. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) in a typical Arizona landscape. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Arizona is home to a desert form of the ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata), a species that I had already seen in Illinois (see Update #10). Cristina is developing a box turtle monitoring program to learn more about management and conservation needs in Arizona. I joined a group of 15 bird dog hunters and their wonderful dogs, plus 22 turtle handling volunteers in eastern Arizona for a scaled quail (Callipepla squamata)/desert box turtle (T. o. luteola) survey at a private grassland habitat restoration site. These dogs are bred and trained to hunt game birds, love doing so, and have shown some promise of finding turtles. I was on a transect line with Cristina, Wade Zarlingo (Small Game Program Manager, AZGFD) and his dog Shilo, a beautiful Pudelpointer, a breed developed in Germany in the late 1800s. Shilo found quail, but no box turtles on that day. Our team did, however, find box turtle tracks at a cattle pond. A bird dog working with a team on another transect line located the single box turtle of the day. 

Wade Zarlingo (Small Game Program Manager, AZGFD) and Cristina A. Jones during a scaled quail (Callipepla squamata)/desert box turtle (Terrapene o. luteola) survey in semidesert grassland located in eastern Arizona. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Wade Zarlingo (Small Game Program Manager, AZGFD) and Cristina A. Jones during a scaled quail (Callipepla squamata)/desert box turtle (Terrapene o. luteola) survey in semidesert grassland located in eastern Arizona. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Wade Zarlingo with Shilo during fieldwork in eastern Arizona. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Wade Zarlingo with Shilo during fieldwork in eastern Arizona. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Shilo in a cattle pond in semidesert grassland in eastern Arizona (note desert box turtle tracks). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Shilo in a cattle pond in semidesert grassland in eastern Arizona (note desert box turtle tracks). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Adult desert box turtle (Terrapene o. luteola) located by a second bird dog during a survey in semidesert grassland in eastern Arizona. Photograph by J. Ehrenberger.

Adult desert box turtle (Terrapene o. luteola) located by a second bird dog during a survey in semidesert grassland in eastern Arizona. Photograph by J. Ehrenberger.

One has to travel to southern Arizona or Sonora, Mexico in order to see the desert-adapted Arizona mud turtle (Kinosternon arizonense). Little is known about this species, so Mike Jones of the American Turtle Observatory (www.americanturtles.org) has initiated a pilot project which involves trapping in cattle ponds, marking individuals, collecting morphometric data, and radio-tracking individuals. We joined Chelsea Mahnk, a field biologist with the American Turtle Observatory, to learn about fieldwork being conducted on federal land along the international border. While there, we captured two adult males in baited, collapsible traps and radiotracked a third turtle to a kangaroo rat (Dipodomys sp.) burrow. That was species #45 for TBTY. I really enjoyed spending the day at that remote and wild location, and hope to have the opportunity to return. Our visit to this site reinforced my fondness for the borderlands. 

Arizona mud turtle (Kinosternon arizonense) habitat in southern Arizona. Note traps set in pond. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.