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WSC wades in to stop US bog turtle decline

By Martin Leggett - 11 May 2011 16:22:0 GMT
WSC wades in to stop US bog turtle decline

They're incredibly tiny, exceptionally slow and just love wallowing in bogs. But something is making the numbers of North America's smallest land turtle - the bog turtle - slip worryingly lower over the last few years. Now a project, that is pooling together the resources of the Fish & Wildlife Service, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program - as well as vets from WSC's Bronx Zoo - is trying find out why.

Bog turtles are one of the more intriguing and wary denizens of the fens of northern and eastern US states. Measuring just 4 and a half inches long, and fond of burying themselves deep in the mire, bog turtles prey on small insects and invertebrates. They are found in two groups, a northern one stretching from Maryland to Massachusetts, and a more southerly group spread across North and South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Tennessee.

In all areas, their habitat has been vanishing fast over the last 30 years - with 80% of known bog turtle sites now victims of land drainage, new housing builds or fragmentation by roads. That has led to them being given 'Endangered' status in both Massachusetts and New York State. But the recent downturn in numbers at several sites in the northern group has scientists puzzled. In order to get to the bottom of the bog turtle decline, wildlife managers and WSC vets from Bronx Zoo are surveying both problem sites, and those where numbers are stable.

The turtles are being located, and given a health check-up - including a thorough physical, and the taking of samples of blood, feces and biopsies, as well as cloacal swabs - before being released back to the bog. ''We're conducting a broad screening in order to identify a cause or causes for the increase in bog turtle deaths,'' said Dr. Bonnie Raphael, Head for Wildlife Medicine at the Wildlife Conservation Society. ''This information will be used to help determine if these recent losses are attributable to infectious disease, environmental perturbations, or other factors.''

With a list of threats coming from habitat destruction, pollution, invasion of alien plant species, and illegal poaching for the pet trade, scientists are hoping they can nip this new problem in the bud. ''The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has made bog turtle recovery a priority,'' said Alison Whitlock, of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Image Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers.