Authored by Houston Chandler
Freshwater turtles and tortoises are one of, if not the most endangered group of vertebrates on the planet. Chelonians across the world have experienced severe population declines because of a variety of factors, including habitat loss and degradation, over collection for human consumption and the pet trade, and increased mortality rates from vehicle encounters and subsidized predation. Unfortunately, generally slow growth rates, low reproductive output, and a long time to reach sexual majority make many turtle and tortoise species particularly susceptible to lowered adult survival rates (no matter the cause). In small populations, it is possible for a single collector to remove a significant portion of the adult animals and decrease the population size to a point where it cannot recover without assistance. Fortunately, awareness of the plight that chelonians are now facing has increased significantly in recent years leading to many conservation successes, but there is still a long way to go.
To solve the complex challenges associated with declining Chelonian populations, it takes a dedicated and passionate group of conservationists from around the world. I recently attended the Turtle Survival Alliance’s (TSA) annual meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, which brings together some of the best minds in turtle conservation. The meeting was attended by turtle biologists, conservationists, and other interested parties from universities, state and federal agencies, and non-governmental organization’s (NGO), all with the goal of promoting turtle conservation. The TSA began in 2001 as a response to the Asian turtle crisis and has developed into one of the premier organizations promoting turtle conservation worldwide. They are committed to zero turtle extinctions in the 21st century through restoring populations in the wild, securing species with captive assurance colonies, and building the capacity to conserve species within their country of origin. TSA hosted an excellent meeting that was well attended by people from around the world.
One of the best things about attending scientific meetings is getting to hear about the fascinating research and conservation work that is being done to preserve the species that we care about. For turtles and tortoises, this work often pulls species away from the brink of extinction by creating populations that are more robust to the challenges of today’s world. Presentations ranged from new discoveries of Alligator Snapping Turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) in an unexpected urban water body to describing our understanding of how river turtles in South America communicate and how that may affect our ability to conserve these species through captive releases. There were lessons learned from purchasing and owning land to protect tortoises near urban areas in South Africa, which has interesting parallels to fire-maintained ecosystems in the southeast. Several members of state and federal agencies discussed conservation funding, with a particular focus on State Wildlife Action Plans and Species of Greatest Conservation Need. An entire session was dedicated to the work being done on turtle populations that occur near roads. Road mortality can shift the sex ratio of entire populations to male biased because females are often more likely to get hit when moving over land to lay eggs. Many researchers are now looking at adding underpasses near areas with high mortality in the hopes that turtles and other wildlife will be able to cross from one side of the road to the other without having to risk encountering a vehicle. These and other presentations provided a snapshot of some of the great work that is currently being done with turtles and tortoises.
No meeting would be complete without catching up with colleagues and partners working on similar species in an attempt to make upcoming field seasons go a little smoother. It is amazing what you can learn by talking to other members of the community who can steer you towards a solution that has worked for them in previous field seasons. In my case, I got the chance to sit down and talk with Jonathan Mays (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation) and Mike Knoerr (Clemson University) about the finer points of following small turtles though the unforgiving swamp. Jonathan works with Spotted Turtles (Clemmys guttata) in Florida and has assisted with our project in the past. Mike currently works with Bog Turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) and is an expert at following females around while they search for nesting locations. Getting the opportunity to sit down face to face and discuss upcoming field seasons is incredibly useful as we begin planning our 2018 Spotted Turtle work.
Overall, the 2017 TSA meeting was a huge success. An incredible amount of knowledge about turtles and tortoises was shared over a three-day period, with many positive stories of conservation success. Given the immense challenges that many Chelonian populations still face, this work will have to be continued and expanded upon if we are going to meet the TSA’s goal of no turtle extinctions during the 21st century.