Technician Spotlight: Andrea Colton, Searching for Spotted Turtles



Andrea with one of this season’s last indigo snake captures – Ben Stegenga

Andrea Colton recently wrapped up a three-month technician position surveying for Spotted Turtles in southeastern Georgia as part of a multi-state monitoring project. Finding new Spotted Turtle populations in Georgia has proven to be a monumental task over the last three years. This season especially so. Andrea describes some of her experiences from a challenging field season below.

– Houston

Spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) are perhaps the most striking freshwater turtle species in the United States. The orange spots dotting their dark shells help them blend in remarkably well with the dappled sunlight that hits the leaf litter visible in clear waters of shallow wetlands. When I first arrived in Georgia to work for the Orianne Society, I visited two wetlands that were pretty abundant with spotted turtles to get some hands on experience measuring, weighing, and marking them. Little did I know, this would be my only experience with these turtles.

A characteristic bottomland swamp – Andrea Colton

My goal for this field season was to trap various wetlands around southeastern Georgia to get an idea of what types of wetlands these turtles prefer and how abundant they are in those wetlands. For every trap placed, I recorded water depth, canopy cover, distance to land, and estimated amounts of emergent vegetation, submergent vegetation, and shrubbery. Despite these efforts, the turtles I was after evaded my traps for two months and have not brought us any closer to conclusions about the wetland characteristics Georgia populations prefer.

Georgia has a high diversity of wetland habitats – Andrea Colton

While this particular piece of Georgian nature eluded me, I was able to experience the diversity of wildlife and habitat Georgia has to offer. I have sank into muddy wetlands up to my thighs, fought through vegetation so thick I thought I would surely end up stuck, explored Cyprus swamps and floodplains, and meandered through beautiful, secluded deciduous forest wetlands. What I lacked in spotted turtles, I made up for in Eastern and striped mud turtles, who seemed quite happy to be stuck with the several crayfish that would inevitably make their way into traps. On a sunny day, I could expect to see pond sliders in my traps or basking on logs nearby. I found myself next to large snapping turtles on a couple of occasions (some closer to my traps than I would have liked), but luckily only the small ones ended up in my traps. I have scared quite a few banded and brown water snakes from their little islands of vegetation into the water, rescued a mud snake that found itself caught in a trap, come across many racers zooming along the ground in front of me, had a coachwhip launch itself at me, and kept a wide berth around the cottonmouths I have come across basking at the water’s edge. I have struggled to get a hold of panicked bullfrogs while being serenaded by tree frogs and saw no shortage of cricket frogs hopping around my feet.  I caught quite a few two-toed amphiumas that luckily slide out of traps pretty easily or else I might still be in a wetland somewhere trying to get a hold of their slimy and wriggly bodies to get them out.

Mud snake (Farancia abacura) released from a turtle trap – Andrea Colton

Certainly some of the cooler, yet scarier experiences came from alligators. I am from the Midwest, so this was entirely new territory for me. I vaguely knew I would be in areas with alligators but I hadn’t seen any and wasn’t too concerned until I happened to look up as I was setting a trap to see a 9ft alligator swimming about 60 meters ahead of me. I walked a little slower and a lot more vigilantly after that. Despite that, I still ended up startling many clumsily into the water and ended up close to one who hissed at me. I couldn’t tell you how large it was because I got out of there as quickly as I could. I was also lucky enough to hear a couple bellowing at each other (and was even luckier that I wasn’t in the water with them at the time).

Juvenile alligators sitting in the shallows – Andrea Colton

So while I may not have gotten what I came here to search for, I still got to be outside in the beautiful nature that Georgia has to offer every day and that was more than enough for me.

Luckily, only juvenile snapping turtles can find their way into turtle traps – Andrea Colton