Spotted Turtles and Falling Face First: An interview with Orianne’s, Dirk Stevenson

Authored by Dirk Stevenson and Cody Bliss

Cody Bliss (CB): So everybody has their first herping story, what is yours and how did it lead you to become involved in this field?

Dirk Stevenson (DS): As a boy growing up in southern Illinois my dad often took me fishing. Invariably, when the angling action was slow, I would wander off and attempt, sometimes successfully, to capture at a pond or lake edge, large Bullfrogs and Painted Turtles in the landing net. At some point, confidence burgeoning, I graduated from this to grabbing snakes. In high school, I realized I possessed the nature gene, the herping gene, if there are such genes. I began a course of study (zoology, ecology) that reflected my interest and I joined a professional organization renowned for their herp focus, the Society for the Study of Amphibians Reptiles (SSAR).

Dirk Stevenson

CB: So what was it about the Orianne Society that inspired you to join their team?

DS: The Orianne Society has a no-nonsense approach to amphibian and reptile conservation in that we rely on the best available science to make conservation decisions. And when good information and field data are lacking for specific imperiled taxa, say, for example, we need better occurrence data for the Spotted Turtle in Georgia, we strive to make it happen. Of course, it is an honor and a privilege to work for this organization and to be part of a team dedicating to helping save magnificent animals.

CB: You mentioned the Spotted Turtle, what is your favorite part about working with this species or freshwater turtles in general?

DS: Checking traps. It’s like opening a Christmas present! This April, one turtle trap contained a sizeable Two-toed Amphiuma, a three-legged (this injury long since healed) Eastern Mud Turtle, and a pair of Spotted Turtles in copulo. One wondered what their morning conversation had been… Another held a plump Cottonmouth and a foot-long Bullfrog. My wife claims that our garage (where I house traps between field surveys) is rank with the odor of weathering sardines (oil/juice from the bait forms a film on the mesh of the traps). I am fine with the odor, to me it smells like data.

CB: Those sound like interesting days in the field! Surely there are some challenging aspects as well?

DS: As you know, many turtle species live a very long time, so the best turtle studies are those that extend beyond the longevities of the humans who research them. The Spotted Turtle, is an enigmatic and secretive little fellow—we are still working hard to obtain the skills needed to find new populations. And, it’s sometimes a challenge to mark a kinosternid turtle without getting bit!

CB: Getting bit! That makes me think that there must be some interesting or funny stories that you could share?

DS: More than could ever be published here! But, this spring, a visiting researcher waited for me on the bank of a muddy swamp while I checked a Spotted Turtle trap. It held a cute-as-a-bug (and not much larger) Common Snapping Turtle that was about the size of a half-dollar. The turtle released its musk on me and withdrew into its shell. I cupped it in my hand and began the laborious wade, around cypress knees and under hanging poison ivy, to the swamp-edge. I knew the visiting biologist would enjoy seeing it. Suddenly, and almost at the shore, I tripped and fell face-first into a pool-table sized pocket of deep black muck, plunging my hand carrying the turtle into the soup as I did. Spotted Turtle Threats I had dropped the turtle, dangit! Despite stirring and noodling about in this swamp pudding of sorts for a good five minutes we never found it.

CB: It sounds like these efforts can be quite laborious! Why is so important to study these turtles? Are there currently any threats to these animals?

DS: Habitat loss and illegal collection for the pet trade. Roads are especially insidious as they fragment Spotted Turtle habitat leading to turtles being killed when they attempt to cross as they move between wetlands, in search of mates, or in search of nesting sites. Like many other turtle species, viable and robust Spotted Turtle populations are characterized by adult individuals living a very long time (from many decades to even over a century).

CB: You mentioned Spotted Turtle traps. What are these used for and what else is currently being done (with Orianne) to conserve freshwater turtles?

DS: “Spotties” are a focal species of our Longleaf Savannas Initiative—Freshwater Turtle Conservation Priority. We are conducting long-term mark-recapture studies at several sites in southern Georgia, these efforts were initiated in 2013. Last year we carried out radiotelemetry studies of spotties in an effort to better understand their movement patterns and habitat use. We plan to conduct studies of the species’ reproductive biology soon, as well as an intensive field study that will address the efficacy of various survey techniques. We have partnered with other premier Spotted Turtle scientists throughout the species’ range in designing our studies.

CB: Why should we care about the Spotted Turtle or freshwater turtles in general?

Spotted Turtle Threats

DS: They are part of the wonderful biota of our planet and a fascinating component of our natural heritage. And, because of their beauty and role in freshwater ecosystems in the eastern United States, this species has become a true icon for wetland conservation. I have met many folks who became excited about herps and conservation after meeting, in person, a Clemmys guttata.

CB: I couldn’t agree more! Well thank you for sharing your stories with us. If folks at home wanted to get involved to help conserve and protect these species, what are some steps they could take?

DS: Contact local state, federal and non-profit organizations and universities in your region that conduct turtle studies and volunteer to assist either in the field or in an education setting. Introducing turtles (and other herps) to school children is extremely rewarding. Read as widely as possible and attend turtle conservation conferences. And lastly, support organizations that are working towards the conservation of turtles… I heard the Orianne Society has a fantastic membership and donation program as well!

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