Even Armored Species Need Protection: Conserving the Turtles of the US

“It’s hard not to instantly fall in love with bog turtles. They have such big personalities for such small turtles. I could sit there and watch one all day,” said Emilly Nolan, ARC Southern Appalachians Program Coordinator.

It’s not just Emilly who feels this way. Turtles have captured the human imagination for centuries across the globe, as evidenced by art crafted by ancient Egyptians, pictographs and petroglyphs created by Indigenous Peoples in the US, and much more.

And it’s no wonder. With their distinctive shells and the number of diverse ecosystems they inhabit, turtles represent a unique and fascinating branch of vertebrate evolution. 

As ARC Field Biologist Nicole Dahrouge explained, turtles are “highly persistent on the evolutionary timescale, and their diversity allows them to occupy a wide range of environments.”

The US boasts upwards of 50 species of turtles, and the highest diversity is in the Southeastern states. In fact, the region contains one of the highest concentrations of turtle species in the world.

These ancient reptiles exhibit an incredible array of adaptations and behaviors, reflecting their rich diversity and ecological significance. Turtles play essential roles in their ecosystems – contributing to energy dynamics, maintaining food webs, and shaping habitats through their behaviors.

Their remarkable adaptations have enabled them to thrive in the US’s many diverse environments. From massive sea turtles traversing oceans to tortoises roaming desert landscapes, each species possesses distinct characteristics suited to its habitat. Their high degree of specialization makes them vulnerable, however.

Turtles At Risk

52% of turtles worldwide are threatened with extinction. Habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation, along with pollution and collection for the pet trade and food markets, all pose significant challenges to their survival.

Moreover, turtles’ amazing life histories contribute to their vulnerability. Unlike many other wildlife species, turtles take years to reach sexual maturity, with some species requiring up to two decades. This slow reproductive rate, coupled with high juvenile mortality, makes them particularly susceptible to population declines.

On-the-Ground Turtle Conservation

We’re carrying out conservation efforts for turtles that are as varied as the species themselves and the places they inhabit.

For target species, we first focus on monitoring them. Answering basic questions about turtles’ population sizes and demographics, the ways they use the habitat, the timing of their reproduction, and more is critical.

To do so in Florida, we walk along transects (a preselected straight line) in the sunny, open pine forests to survey for gopher tortoises. When a gopher tortoise burrow is encountered, we use a scope, a long stiff tube with a camera mounted on it, to peer inside and look for the brown tortoises with domed shells and shovel-like front legs.

In the beautiful Francis Marion PARCA (Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Area) in South Carolina, we survey for at-risk spotted turtles with hoop nets. These traps, which are placed in wetlands and baited with irresistible treats, like wet cat food, have a funnel-shaped entrance that turtles are able to swim into but cannot exit.

When we catch one of these darkly colored turtles with bright yellow and orange polka dots on its shell, legs, neck, and head, we measure, mark, and then release it, and sometimes, we also attach a radio transmitter that enables us to track its movements.

This information is critical in determining the extent of the spotted turtle’s decline and the most impactful actions for its populations.

Another charismatic species is found in muddy wetlands in the rolling, picturesque mountains of the Southern Appalachians PARCAs – the tiny bog turtle. We’re carrying out both monitoring and targeted conservation actions for these adorable 4-inch-long turtles.

One of the ways we monitor them is with bucket traps, which are upside-down buckets with entrance and exit holes cut into them and motion-sensor cameras mounted inside that record whatever passes through.

In addition, in the spring and early summer, we place cages around bog turtle nests to protect the vulnerable eggs from predators. Populations of predators that enjoy turtle eggs, like raccoons, have increased as more human development has encroached near bog turtle habitats.

A little farther west in the Bankhead PARCA, Alabama, we’re working to protect the only endemic reptile species in the state, the federally listed Threatened flattened musk turtle. Here, we’re monitoring them with environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling to determine which areas they’re using in order to conduct targeted restoration of their preferred habitats.

In fact, in all of our PARCAs, we’re protecting and restoring the habitats these incredible armored species need, which is the key to their continued survival.

We’re doing all of this to give turtles their best chances of thriving into the future. Not only are they good for ecosystems, but they bring wonder and a sense of awe to our days, are accessible points of connection to the natural world, and can even serve as reminders of who we are.

Nicole said, “As an introvert, I admire that when they’ve had enough of a situation, they slurp into their shells and don’t come back out until they’re good and ready.”