THE WASHINGTON POST – They’re brown, red and black, about the size of a football, and in serious trouble. Now, local ecologists are launching an effort to track wood turtles to help the struggling species survive.
Wood turtles were once found in abundance from Maine to Virginia, but in the past few decades their population has dropped significantly. Efforts are underway in a partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, in Washington DC, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, along with wildlife departments in Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia, to count them and get a better sense of their population and habitats.
“Wood turtles, like trout, don’t like ugly places, and we need them as part of a healthy, functioning ecosystem,” said a research ecologist at the Smithsonian’s facility in Front Royal, Virginia Tom Akre. “They matter because they’re important indicators of our environment, and their presence – or absence – lets us know if there’s clean water and clean air.”
Wood turtles lost a lot of their habitat as the streams where they’re typically found have became polluted with runoff from agricultural uses or overrun by nearby development, experts said.
In Virginia, experts said, wood turtles have “lost nearly half of their historic range”, and they’re considered “one of the most endangered freshwater turtles in North America”.
Akre’s team plans to look for wood turtles in Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, by using what’s called “environmental DNA” to find how many of them remain.
Because their population there may be low – and they’re hard to see in murky water – researchers take water samples and then filter them at a lab where DNA is extracted to see if it matches that of a wood turtle.
“We’re essentially using crime scene-like technology as markers to detect them,” Akre said.
Researchers have put GPS and radio transmitters on wood turtles they’ve found in northwest Virginia so they can better understand how far turtles travel, particularly when searching for a mate. In a few cases, they have found instances of wood turtles crawling roughly 15 miles over mountains in northwest Virginia and neighbouring West Virginia to look for new streams and mates.
Finding turtles is no easy task. They live under leaves in brown, cloudy water. Researchers have to step carefully in stream beds. Once they find a turtle, they assign it a number and put notches on its shell to identify it and track it over time. They also take note of its length, width, height, weight, and any unique markings on its shell before putting it back into a stream.
It is illegal to harass or possess wood turtles. The public should not disturb them and only watch them from a distance, experts said. Smithsonian researchers are allowed to conduct wood turtle surveys under state research permits, and they’re trained to handle them carefully with minimal disruption to their habitats.
Adapting to a changing environment has been one of the biggest challenges for wood turtles.
Bald eagles, for example, have made a resurgence in many areas, including in the Washington DC region, as they’ve made their homes in more urban and suburban populated areas. But for wood turtles, it is not the same.
“Relative to most mammals and birds, everything wood turtles do is slow,” Akre said. “They grow slowly, and they reproduce slowly.”