On a chilly day in early November, I plunged into a cold, shallow stream in search of a turtle that had previously eluded me – the Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). Wood Turtles are a fascinating species that spend part of their time on land and part of their time in streams and rivers. Wood Turtles occur primarily in the northeastern United States but do make it down into northern Virginia and west into the Great Lakes region. Living in a cold climate necessitates adaptations to survive long winters where air temperatures often reach lethal limits for extended periods of time. These adaptations are why I was standing in a cold stream on a day when the air temperature was not likely to make it past 50 degrees (not exactly good weather for most reptiles).
Wood Turtles overwinter in clear, flowing streams and rivers where water is well-oxygenated, allowing the turtles to stay underwater for long periods of time. Water temperatures in these streams are fairly stable across time and do not reach temperatures that would be lethal for the turtles. Leading the search for Wood Turtles was Jordan Gray from the Turtle Survival Alliance (read his account here). He had visited this site previously and was well-versed in searching for Wood Turtles. I had only spent a few days at most in the Wood Turtle range during my time in Virginia and was excited to potentially see a lifer turtle!
Despite the cool weather, searching for Wood Turtles turned out to be one of the most enjoyable afternoons looking for reptiles that I have experienced. We slowly waded along the edges of the picturesque stream, scanning for turtles sitting in the shallow water. Before too long Jordan spotted the first turtle in an area where turtles had often been seen before. This turtle turned out to be male #587, which was first marked all the way back in 2012 as part of range-wide surveys conducted by the Wood Turtle Working Group. Over the next few hours, we manage to find eight more Wood Turtles, including a mating pair and seven adult turtles that were not previously marked. Unmarked turtles in a fairly well-sampled section of stream is a good sign and indicates that this population is doing well despite the encroachment of humans on their habitat. Roads crossed the stream in many places, and the adjacent woods have been converted to hayfields in others.
Wood Turtles are listed as Endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, and many populations across their large range are in decline. Threats to Wood Turtle populations are numerous and include habitat loss and collection for the pet trade. This story is similar for many freshwater turtle species native to the eastern United States and Canada. This region has a long and rich history of freshwater turtle research, with some of the longest and best studies of turtle ecology and conservation taking place here. Unfortunately, many of these turtle species are now threatened with extinction in the not so distant future if population trends continue in the current direction. The combination of charismatic species, declining populations, and a long history of turtle research has led to a high number of excellent turtle biologists and conservation programs across the eastern U.S.
With these broad issues in mind, Northeast Turtle Conservation Coordinator Kiley Briggs and I recently attended the Spotted, Blanding’s, and Wood Turtle Conservation Symposium at Cacapon State Park near Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. This meeting was organized by the Spotted Turtle Working Group as part of the ongoing range-wide conservation project for Spotted Turtles. The group ultimately decided to include Blanding’s and Wood Turtles in the meeting agenda because of their similar ecology and conservation concerns, overlapping ranges, and many partners working on multiple species. In fact, the Orianne Society now works on all three species across our programs – Spotted Turtles in the southeast and Blanding’s and Wood Turtles in the northeast.
The meeting was attended by approximately 130 partners from across all three species’ ranges, representing universities, government agencies, and nonprofits. Over two days, participants gave presentations that updated everyone on the work that they were doing, learned more about key issues such as illegal collection of wild turtles, and connected with others doing similar work on freshwater turtles. The keynote address was given by Dr. Jacqueline Litzgus from Laurentian University and discussed her observations from over 20 years of Spotted Turtle research, including some of the only studies conducted on southeastern populations until our current work. It was great to hear about all of the conservation work being conducted for these turtle species, but also sobering to see many long-term population projections ending with populations declining to zero.
Turtle life history traits generally make them poorly suited to adapting to rapid environmental change like what has occurred over the last two hundred years. There is little reason to believe that environmental change will cease in the near future, placing a premium on identifying and managing robust turtle populations that are resistant to or adapt to these changes. One of the most important things to come out of this meeting was the designation of next steps in the conservation of all three species. Potential actions were discussed by partners and then prioritized based on what experts thought would be most important to limit further population declines. For example, one frequently discussed issue was illegal collection of wild turtles for the pet trade. States with loopholes in their turtle collection laws are often used by poachers as a place to safely hold turtles collected in other states. Thus, closing these loopholes strengthens protections for turtles across their range. To address this, attending members agreed to draft and sign a letter urging states to strengthen existing turtle collection laws. This letter will then be distributed to the appropriate people in state governments.
Overall, the conservation symposium was successful and will directly benefit the conservation of Spotted, Blanding’s and Wood Turtles. Forging and maintaining large-scale partnerships that span both state and national boundaries are one of the few ways to make meaningful conservation gains for many species. Through these partnerships, ecological research, habitat management, and public outreach have all been conducted for these charismatic turtle species over the past decade. This work will continue into the future, and we are determined to see these turtles have a place on the landscape for generations to come.