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.