Recent FTCT Publications on the Southern Distribution of the Suwannee Cooter

Scenic view of the Alafia River (Hillsborough County, Florida), home to an abundant population of the Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Scenic view of the Alafia River (Hillsborough County, Florida), home to an abundant population of the Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Understanding the geographic distribution of turtles is fundamental to conservation and management. Restricted to rivers that drain into the northeastern Gulf of Mexico along the northwest coast of Florida, the southern distribution and status of the Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) is uncertain and hence of conservation concern. George L. Heinrich and Timothy J. Walsh, supported by volunteers, continue to survey Gulf Coast rivers in an effort to determine the true distribution of the largest member of the speciose turtle family Emydidae. Prior to this work, a long-believed distributional gap of ~79 km occurred between the Weeki Wachee River and Alafia River (previously the southernmost documented occurrence; see map). Over the past two years, we have completed rapid assessment surveys that found the species in the Pithlachascotee and Anclote rivers. Our team also documented the occurrence of Suwannee cooters in the Chassahowitzka, Little Manatee, and Manatee rivers. The following geographic distribution notes published in Herpetological Review provide five new river records, two new county records, and a range extension.

Heinrich. G.L. and T.J. Walsh. 2017. Geographic Distribution: Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis). Herpetological Review 48(1):124. (click here for .pdf)

Walsh, T.J. and G.L. Heinrich. 2016. Geographic Distribution: Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis). Herpetological Review 47(3):422-423. (click here for .pdf)

Heinrich, G.L. and T.J. Walsh. 2016. Geographic Distribution: Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis). Herpetological Review 47(3):422. (click here for .pdf)

Walsh, T.J. and G.L. Heinrich. 2015. Geographic Distribution: Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys suwanniensis). Herpetological Review 46(3):382. (click here for .pdf)

We continue to survey the north and south prongs of the Alafia River as part of a project to determine the distribution and status of the Suwannee cooter in this beautiful, yet anthropogenically-disturbed, tannic river. For more information on this work, please see an earlier blog posting below.

Basking juvenile Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) on the Anclote River (Pasco County, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Basking juvenile Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) on the Anclote River (Pasco County, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Future work includes surveys of the Hillsborough River (within the former distributional gap), as well as rivers south of the Manatee River. In addition, we hope to determine why famed Florida naturalist and turtle biologist, Archie Carr, stated that this species occurred in Pinellas County when there is no supporting evidence. Challenges in the field, museums, and office are more than compensated for by opportunities to drive conservation and experience wild Florida. We are most grateful to Jim Caldwell, Lynn Marshall, and Ernie Simmons for their support in the field.

Basking adult Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) on the Little Manatee River (Hillsborough County, Florida). Photograph by James F. Caldwell.

Basking adult Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) on the Little Manatee River (Hillsborough County, Florida). Photograph by James F. Caldwell.

The Big Turtle Year (2017)

Turtles are ancient creatures that shared the earth with the dinosaurs and today are important and visible elements in many ecosystems. Some species serve as indicators of environmental health, while others are classified as keystone species (play a vital ecological role in a given habitat), umbrella species (conservation efforts on their behalf benefit the larger ecological community), or flagship species (iconic symbols of habitat conservation efforts). Thus, turtle conservation benefits the ecosystems in which they are found.

George L. Heinrich with a juvenile Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) during recent fieldwork in west-central Florida Photograph by Ernest C. Simmons.

George L. Heinrich with a juvenile Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) during recent fieldwork in west-central Florida Photograph by Ernest C. Simmons.

The IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group reports that approximately 58% of all turtles are threatened with extinction. A long list of diverse threats to both common and highly endangered tortoise and freshwater turtle species have been identified globally. Perhaps the greatest are habitat loss; collection for the food, pet, and traditional medicinal trade; road mortality; and predation. Working in negative synergy, these threats are creating a perfect storm for the most endangered wildlife taxa in the world. Certainly, these threats present broad and immediate conservation challenges. Despite the urgency of the situation, opportunities for conservation are abundant and the charismatic attraction of turtles makes them an excellent group for education and outreach efforts to enhance ecological, conservation, and environmental awareness.

Fifty-nine turtle species occur in the United States and many are of conservation concern. While species from areas such as Asia, South America, and Madagascar often receive the majority of conservation attention, the plight of North American species quietly goes unnoticed. The Big Turtle Year (2017) will emphasize the rich diversity, ecology, and conservation needs of species found in the United States. Long in the planning, this education project will increase awareness regarding the status of these often overlooked animals. George L. Heinrich (Heinrich Ecological Services; Florida Turtle Conservation Trust) and Timothy J. Walsh (Bruce Museum; Florida Turtle Conservation Trust) will visit numerous sites accompanied by other researchers in an effort to see as many species as possible during a single year. The project's progress will be featured on a dedicated website, promoted via social media outlets, and presented at several organizational conferences and meetings (both during and after the project).

Five field trips (7-10 days each) are being organized for the regions listed below, in addition to multiple shorter trips in Florida. Every effort is being made to maximize species diversity at the fewest locations possible to reduce costs.

Northeast (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts)

Southeast (Alabama, Lousiana, and Mississippi)

Texas

Midwest (Illinois and Michigan)

Southwest (California and Arizona)

Florida

Recent Fieldwork Regarding Suwannee Cooter Distribution

Photograph by Ernest C. Simmons.

Photograph by Ernest C. Simmons.

George and Tim recently completed a week of fieldwork on several Florida rivers within the southern distribution of the Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis). Accurate delineation of this species' distribution is vital to assuring appropriate conservation and management efforts. Other than limited references to this species in the Alafia River in both the scientific and gray literature, little is known regarding its occurrence south of the Weeki Wachee River. The paucity of fieldwork conducted in the past illustrates the need for basic research in this region. This project is generating much-needed data for a species that is known to be data-deficient. The distribution map below was prepared prior to our documentation (Walsh and Heinrich 2015) of the Suwannee cooter's occurrence on the Pithlachascotee River. Check back soon to learn the exciting results of our recent fieldwork.

Recent interview about FTCT's Suwannee cooter research

The Florida Turtle Conservation Trust's ongoing Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) research in the Alafia River, conducted in collaboration with Heinrich Ecological Services (St. Petersburg, Florida) and the Bruce Museum (Greenwich, Connecticut), was highlighted in this recent Fotobug podcast (interview begins at 13:17 mark). Thanks to Jim Caldwell for promoting this field project.

New FTCT website, blog and update on activities.

We recently redesigned the organizational website which reflects a modern look and is now mobile device-friendly. The website now also features a blog that allows visitors to keep up with our projects and activities. Please do consider subscribing.

Juvenile Suwannee cooter found during a survey of the Alafia River. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Juvenile Suwannee cooter found during a survey of the Alafia River. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Also, as many of you are aware, in early 2014 we initiated a study focusing on the distribution and status of the imperiled Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) in rivers within its southern range. We have steadily been working on this subspecies for nearly a decade and have documented anthropogenic threats they face such as human harvest and injury/mortality from boat strikes. We have recently completed the following two manuscripts.

Heinrich, G.L., D.R. Jackson, T.J. Walsh, and D.S. Lee. 2015. Southernmost Occurrence of the Suwannee cooter, Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis (Testudines: Emydidae). Journal of North American Herpetology 1:53-59. (click here for .pdf)

Walsh, T.J. and G.L. Heinrich. 2015. Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis (Suwannee cooter). Geographic distribution. Herpetological Review: (click here for .pdf). (new county record and new river record for the species)

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program awarded the FTCT a grant for $4,450.12 for a project titled “The Suwannee Cooter in the Alafia River: Determining the Distribution, Status, and Conservation Needs of a Disjunct Turtle Population.” This yearlong project is progressing nicely and to date, we have documented 27 localities for our distribution map. Completion of this fieldwork will allow us to determine an appropriate site on this river to begin a mark-recapture study scheduled to begin in spring 2016. You can read about a kayak survey we undertook in June on the Bruce Museum Science Department’s blog, www.storagetwo.com

FTCT Executive Director, George L. Heinrich, documenting the first sighting of a Suwannee cooter in the Pithlachascotee River. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

FTCT Executive Director, George L. Heinrich, documenting the first sighting of a Suwannee cooter in the Pithlachascotee River. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

 We recently presented on the above work at the 13th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles (6-9 August 2015, Tucson, Arizona; www.turtlesurvival.org). This is the joint annual meeting of the Turtle Survival Alliance/IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Specialist Group. Additional presentations on this work are scheduled for the following:  

30 September 2015: “The Suwannee Cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) in the Alafia River: Determining the Distribution, Status, and Conservation Needs of a Disjunct Turtle Population” at Bay Area Scientific Information Symposium 6 (BASIS 6), University of South Florida St. Petersburg

20 October 2015: “Survey of Florida Rivers to Determine the Southern Distribution of the Suwannee Cooter” at St. Petersburg Audubon Society (Sunshine Center, St. Petersburg, Florida)

12 January 2016: “Survey of Florida Rivers to Determine the Southern Distribution of the Suwannee Cooter” at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida)

Pellets from Barred Owls packaged for later examination, along with turtle remains found near a nest. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Pellets from Barred Owls packaged for later examination, along with turtle remains found near a nest. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Additionally, we have continued our study on raptor predation of turtles in central Florida. Two species, red-shouldered hawk and barred owl, are the focus of this research. This information will contribute to further understanding the importance of turtles within the dynamics of food webs. The first publication is listed below. We continue to analyze material related to barred owl predation.

Walsh, T.J. and G.L. Heinrich. 2015. Red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) predation of turtles in central Florida. Florida Field Naturalist 43(2):79-85. (click here for .pdf)

 

Remains of ten turtle species found under a Red-shouldered Hawk nest in central Florida. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Remains of ten turtle species found under a Red-shouldered Hawk nest in central Florida. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.