Tag Archives: bog turtle

Bog turtles – a One Health Ambassador

A healthy bog turtle from a New York population. Credit: Sandy Doran, USFWS

A healthy bog turtle from a New York population. Credit: Sandy Doran, USFWS

The One Health Initiative promotes the idea that human, animal, and environmental health are all linked, so by changing one aspect of the triad you inevitably affect the rest.

This initiative encourages collaboration across a variety of scientific disciplines to create synergist approaches to large scale health issues. Recent mortality events in populations of the country’s smallest turtle have provided an opportunity for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do just this—to bring together partners across a variety of disciplines to explore an issue that could be affecting more than the bog turtle.

Bog turtles, the smallest turtle in North America, are federally listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Although these turtles are small they are mighty!

They have a lifespan of 30+ years and remain almost exclusively in the same wetlands where they hatched. They have become threatened primarily as a result of degradation, fragmentation and/or destruction of habitat, due to human activities.

In 2011, bog turtle populations in New York and Massachusetts had unexplained mortality events and individuals were showing clinical changes in their skin that included discoloration and ulceration.

State Line Fen WRP Project S. Doran with BT (3) 6.20.13

Biologist Sandy Doran holds a health bog turtle. Now you can really appreciate their small size! Credit: Sandy Doran, USFWS

This puzzled many biologists and prompted a response to figure out what was causing the mortality.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decided to fund a project involving Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) veterinarians, pathologists and technicians, and state biologists to conduct health assessments on bog turtles at 4 sites in these two states.

Previous research on other turtle species suggested that infectious diseases, such as Mycoplasma (an upper respiratory tract disease), could be an important contributor to mortality.

WCS was unable to determine the actual cause of death, but the research did confirm the presence of Mycoplasma. Tests for ranavirus and herpesvirus came back negative.

Unfortunately, additional research efforts have had mixed results.

  • Additional assessments in Dutchess County, New York, were negative for ranavirus as well as Mycoplasma, but were positive for herpesvirus.
  • Data from New Jersey suggests that there is a high prevalence of herpesvirus in bog turtle populations in that state.
  • Recent results from a 2017 study in Oswego County, New York, indicated that all the sampled bog turtles were healthy.

Ultimately the disease prevalence is highly variable and additional testing is required to understand the disease distribution within a variety of bog turtle populations. The 2017 study, funded by USFWS, allowed WCS and the State University of New York College at Oswego (SUNY Oswego) to assess turtles at a site that is far removed from other parts of the bog turtle range where positive disease detections have been made; it was of particular interest to better understand if bog turtles at this site carried the same diseases.

While there were some old injuries observed, and very occasional unexplained minor discoloration of skin, the sampled turtles were in very good condition.

Continuing to study this species is important because by better understanding these unexplained mortality events we can support a more robust wetland habitat system and ideally eventually recover this species (hooray!).

There are a lot of unknowns in this project like how climate change may play a role in bog turtle populations and whether a changing climate will trigger more disease impacts.  The continuation of research efforts will allow more knowledge to be gained to help protect this species long term.

This collaborative effort remains on-going to protect this tiny turtle and to better understand the impacts to habitat and disease. The more we can encourage and work together toward common conservation goals the better we can promote and protect the biodiversity of our world, one tiny turtle at a time.

A “Shell” of a Good Time in the Field

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Today, we are hearing from Alyssa Martinez, the summer outreach intern at the New York Field Office. Alyssa is a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar through North Carolina State University where she is studying zoology. She brings a passion for environmental education and hopes to share her experiences in the field (here she is with a bog turtle)!

 

 

With one foot in the muck and both eyes focused ahead, I lunge forward…. SLURP! My boot comes out of the unsympathetic wetland soil beneath my feet. This may not be a typical day on the job for an outreach intern, but for me it was an opportunity to find North America’s smallest turtle in a rare, yet diverse habitat. I trailed behind a team of biologists, hoping to find and record important scientific information about these tiny critters.

Bog turtles are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Populations have declined primarily by habitat loss and fragmentation. During my first full week as the outreach intern, I was lucky enough to get out in the field and spend some time helping with bog turtle surveys. Having just started working with the New York Field Office (NYFO), I was excited for this new experience.

Equipped with hip-waders and a stick, I was ready to find some turtles. The stick is used to probe the mud and vegetation in search of turtles, but it also has the added benefit of saving your fall when the mud starts claiming your foot.

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Probing the muck for turtles (Photo: Alyssa Martinez).

I was told by some veterans on the team that a distinctive sound can be heard when your stick hits a turtle shell. The sound was described as hollow and woody; easier said than done.  For a rookie, other things sound hollow and woody when you hit them. Many times I probed into the mud with my stick, hit something that sounded like a turtle shell, felt a rush of excitement, and reached into the mud only to come up with a reed, log, or other non-turtle matter.

After many unsuccessful attempts, I was so hungry to find a turtle and desperate to contribute to the efforts, that my mind started tricking me and I would see turtles everywhere: dead leaves started to look like shells, twigs sticking out of the mud became turtle heads; you name it. In the end, all I found were dead leaves, mud, and the occasional frog. I guess beginner’s luck wasn’t on my side.

Although I didn’t personally find a turtle, the team ended up finding several turtles throughout the day. At first we found spotted turtles, and then finally I heard a member of the team yell “bog turtle!”

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This female bog turtle’s shell is reddish due to natural iron deposits in the wetland (Photo: Alyssa Martinez).

Now I could finally see the small size of this species. I was used to handling juvenile turtles of this size, but these were mature adults and only the size of my palm! I am familiar with eastern box turtles that have yellow markings on their shell, and painted turtles which have bright red plastrons (“belly” side of a turtle’s shell), but bog turtles are more subtle in their markings. You can see the distinct orange-yellow spots on either side of their heads and the tree-ring-like patterns on their shell. Much like a tree, these rings are counted to determine the age of the turtle.

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The team of surveyors in the wetland (Photo: Alyssa Martinez).

In the past, I have helped out with Blanding’s turtle surveys and I worked at a turtle rehabilitation facility at my college, so turtles are dear to my heart. Getting a chance to see this small, rare species out in the wild was an opportunity of a lifetime. While I didn’t have the bragging rights of finding a turtle of my own, I truly enjoyed the experience. As a newbie in the field, I was constantly learning from a team of very knowledgeable people. Noelle Rayman-Metcalf, an Endangered Species Biologist at the NYFO, helped me identify what birds were providing the soundtrack of our exploration, as well as the different types of plants in the wetlands that indicate the health of the habitat.

I came away from the experience exhausted and full of new information. I knew if I was given another chance to go out and get my boots stuck in the mud in pursuit of finding bog turtles, I would without a doubt.

Bog turtle

Working lands for wildlife!

Happy Friday, everyone! Today we’re sharing a fun infographic from our partner in the Working Lands for Wildlife program, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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Working Lands for Wildlife was launched in 2012 as an innovative approach to work with farmers and forest landowners to restore and protect habitat for seven specific wildlife species–three of which are found in the Northeast: the New England cottontail, the golden-winged warbler and the bog turtle. Through this partnership, landowners can get technical and financial assistance by volunteering to restore habitat on their land.

New England cottontail

New England cottontail: This rare rabbit can be found east of the Hudson River in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine. It favors habitat with thick, tangled plants, or thickets, which also benefits other species like deer and wild turkey. Partners in the New England cottontail initiative have committed to restoring young forest on 27,000 acres across these states by cutting, shrub planting and prescribed burns, and as of March, we’ve implemented 6,700-8,700 acres. The thickets help ensure the New England cottontail isn’t forced to feed in areas with threats of predators. This photo by Amanda Cheeseman is from a study in Putnam County, New York, where researchers are helping us better understand the population there.

Bog turtle

Bog turtle: The smallest turtle in North America, the bog turtle has been protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1997. The bog turtle’s wetland home has critically diminished because of severe development, which causes draining and filling of its habitat. Bog turtles serve as good indicators of water quality and wetland function. Biologists restore its open canopy habitat by controlling grazing by cows, sheep and goats and by removing some trees and shrubs. Credit: Gary Peeples/USFWS

Credit: Walt Ford/USFWS

Golden-winged warbler: The Upper Midwest and Appalachian Mountains were once a fortress for this migratory bird. Like others, the golden winged warbler has experienced threats of degradation to their shrubby, thicket habitat, which has caused its drastic population decline. Through NRCS’ Working Lands for Wildlife Initiative, private landowners have enhanced about 10,000 acres of young forest habitat for this at-risk songbird species. Credit: Walt Ford/USFWS

Own land and want to help? Check out these frequently asked questions. Read the rest of the blog post at USDA-NRCS.