The Big Turtle Year

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. Among the greatest are habitat loss and degradation; 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.

Pearl River map turtle (Graptemys pearlensis). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Pearl River map turtle (Graptemys pearlensis). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

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 and conservationists in an effort to see as many species as possible during a single year, while examining threats and conservation actions needed. The project's progress will be featured on this 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)

Midwest (Illinois and Michigan)

Southwest (California and Arizona)

Texas

Florida

For more information and to help support the project, please visit:

www.thebigturtleyear.org


Suwannee Cooter Research on the Alafia River

In December 2014, FTCT was awarded a grant from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. This funding was for a project entitled: The Suwannee Cooter in the Alafia River: Determining the Distribution, Status, and Conservation Needs of a Disjunct Turtle Population. 

Hatchling Suwannee cooter found in nest along the Alafia River at Riverview, Florida.

The Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis), the largest emydid turtle, inhabits a small number of rivers that drain into the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. The status of this state-listed subspecies in the southernmost of these rivers, the Alafia, is unknown and hence of conservation concern. Reports of this species in this river are sparse since the collection of the first specimens in 1953. After a hiatus of at least a quarter century, a 2014 discovery of 17 hatchlings documented the continued existence of a reproducing population. This river experienced a major environmental accident in 1997 when the Mulberry Phosphate Company spilled ~50 million gallons of acidic water into the river, which created lethal conditions for all wildlife. 

This project has four objectives: 1) to determine the distribution and status of the Suwannee cooter in the Alafia River, 2) to assess habitat conditions related to the species’ ecology (e.g., basking, feeding, and nesting), 3) to identify conservation actions needed to address any existing threats (including habitat restoration needs), and 4) to offer hands-on field experience and training in wildlife research methods to local college/university students, as well as volunteers active with local parks/preserves. 

Young Suwannee cooter with a healed wound caused by a boat strike.

Flyer created for citizens to document their sighting of this species.

Flyer created for citizens to document their sighting of this species.

This project will include a spotting scope survey (identified basking sites), kayak/boat survey (complete river length), shoreline survey, and community-wide outreach (creating awareness and requesting sighting information). Resulting data will be directly relevant not only to improving zoogeographic knowledge about the species, but also to conserving the gene pool of what may be an important peripheral population. We have also created an outlet for Suwannee cooter sightings which residents and vistors of the Alafia River can use to help us map this turtle's distribution. Please visit iNaturalist Suwannee Cooter - Alafia River Project.

The Alafia River has a drainage of ~1,082 sq. km mostly in eastern Hillsborough County, with headwaters stemming from Polk County within one of the world’s most important (and highly modified) phosphate mining regions. Two second magnitude springs – Buckhorn Main Spring and Lithia Spring Major – empty via short spring runs into the normally tannic river. The lower 18 km of the river are tidally influenced with a shoreline that is heavily developed with private homes. 

The remains of 164 Suwannee cooters from a rural dump site near Cedar Key, Florida.

Historically, the Alafia River basin has been degraded by mining, residential and recreational development, and other forms of habitat disturbance that are likely to have had negative effects on the river’s biota. Of particular significance is the spill event described above. The drastic lowering of pH caused lethal conditions for flora and fauna (including alligators) at the point of entry and downstream for the length of the river. Apparently, a relict population of Suwannee cooters survived, either in the south prong, adjacent spring runs and tributaries, or beyond the river’s mouth. Nonetheless, it remains critical to monitor this ecosystem carefully for existing and potential threats to both aquatic habitat and adjacent upland nesting areas to assure that appropriate conservation and management activities are in place to protect this important population. 

David S. Lee’s specimens and observations from the mid-1960s provide the only ecological and behavioral data for the Suwannee cooter in the Alafia River. The species apparently was common at least in the vicinity of Lithia Springs at that time. Lee also noted that the predominant dietary item was the invasive aquatic plant Brazilian elodea (Egeria densa). Within a span of less than one year, as the land manager eliminated aquatic plants (reportedly with herbicides) from the main spring and run, cooters abandoned use of the site. 

Accurate delineation of the Suwannee cooter’s distribution in the Tampa Bay region is vital to assuring appropriate conservation and management efforts. Limited references to this species in the Alafia River in both the scientific and gray literature illustrate the paucity of fieldwork conducted to date. This project will generate much needed baseline data for a species that is known to be data-deficient. Receipt of this Bay Mini-Grant  allows our team to collect current and valuable information applicable to conserving an important component of the Alafia River system and contribute to protecting the biodiversity of Tampa Bay. In summary, this project will contribute to understanding the conservation needs of this disjunct population, provide data applicable to habitat management and restoration, educate diverse audiences, and train college/university students and future conservationists.