Exploring South Carolina’s Lowcountry



            Spring has officially arrived with the promise of warmer weather and longer days. This year we will be spending a majority of the spring and early summer working on several Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) research projects. The Orianne Society began working with Spotted Turtles all the way back in 2014 when we began monitoring one of the few known populations in Georgia. Since then we have expanded our work to include multiple research projects examining various aspects of Spotted Turtle ecology while continuing to monitor and document new populations.

This year we will continue our long-term monitoring of two Georgia populations; the 5th and 6th consecutive year surveying these sites! This will also be our 2nd season of inventory surveys across the Spotted Turtle range in both Georgia and Florida. These surveys are part of a larger range-wide effort to better understand the status of Spotted Turtles. These ongoing survey efforts by biologists in many states will help to inform a future listing decision for this species. Unfortunately, not every state within the Spotted Turtle range was able to participate, creating data deficiencies in certain parts of the range. This year we have a new project designed to fill in one of these data gaps by surveying for Spotted Turtles in South Carolina.

South Carolina is similar to both Georgia and Florida in that there are few documented Spotted Turtle populations in the state despite large expanses of suitable habitat occurring on protected lands. Furthermore, much of South Carolina sits at a higher latitude than Georgia or Florida, and Spotted Turtles are generally thought to be more abundant and widespread towards the middle of their range (e.g., North Carolina). The chances of identifying populations of conservation significance, not only within South Carolina but also range-wide, is therefore high. South Carolina has one other unique aspect when it comes to turtles ­­— it has long been a favorite location for poachers because of historically lax wildlife laws. There have been several high profile cases of turtle poaching and smuggling in recent years. Identifying existing turtle populations will allow wildlife officials to better protect this species by identifying areas where poaching may be a particular concern.

In mid-March, LSI field technician David Hutto and I travelled to the South Carolina Lowcountry for one of our first weeks surveying for turtles in the state. The Lowcountry of South Carolina was once home to a thriving agriculture industry. Today, it is a popular tourist destination because of the historical and cultural heritage combined with impressive natural environments. It is an area unlike those in which we have previously surveyed for turtles, and we were excited to see what we would find.

            If there is one thing that I have learned from surveying for Spotted Turtles, it is that finding suitable habitat to trap is often difficult and tedious. Spotted Turtles prefer wetlands that are shallow, dry quickly, and are difficult to pinpoint from satellite imagery alone. This day would be a perfect demonstration of the challenges associated with simply setting traps. We had a solid plan heading into the day. Three historic records in three different wetlands should make setting traps fairly straight forward. However, the first two wetlands that we visited were completely dry. The third wetland was still holding water, and we were able to put traps in it and an adjacent wetland. Not to make our job too easy, both wetlands were full of thick vegetation and algae. After wandering around for a couple of hours, occasionally stopping to dump sticks out of our boots, we finished setting half of the week’s traps.

            Having already exhausted the sites we had planned to set all 20 traps in, we needed to find some additional wetlands with standing water. We decided to explore a different part of the property that appeared to have some larger wetlands than the ones we had already visited. We quickly identified a third suitable wetland, although it too had signs that it was rapidly drying. Now late afternoon, we only had to find one more suitable trapping site. We stopped at a large wetland that looked ideal from the road. Shallow water with abundant submerged vegetation surrounded lots of small hummocks and areas with emergent vegetation. Ideal for basking turtles.  Unfortunately, this wetland ended up being a bit too shallow to be easily trappable, and it took us a considerable amount of wandering around to find enough deep patches to set the remaining traps. We did stumble upon a few snakes in the process, a nice bonus at the end of a long day. The highlight was a pretty Mud Snake (Farancia abacura) basking in the afternoon sun.

            Despite the arrival of a cold front overnight, we were optimistic for the first day of trap checks. I should have learned by now that Spotted Turtles are rarely that easy. After a day of visual surveys and 20 trap checks later, all we had to show for it was a Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus), two Pig Frogs (Rana grylio), and three Two-toed Amphiumas (Amphiuma means). Not a single turtle of any species! Days like this seem to be the norm when surveying for Spotted Turtles in southern states, even in places with historic records. With three days left in the week, the chances of seeing at least one turtle this week are still fairly high, and we have a long list of other properties to survey in South Carolina in search of diminutive Spotted Turtles.