In the Field...with turtles

This past Sunday I was invited to join a few colleagues in the field to view North American wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta). The wood turtle is one of the most enigmatic turtles in the US and also one of the most threatened. I met up with fellow conservationists Anthony Pierlioni (theTurtleRoom.com), Michael Musnick, and John Foley in southeastern New York.  Michael and John have numerous sites in the area which they monitor the activity patterns of this species using radio telemetry. Between the two of them, they have around a hundred animals attached with radio transmitters.

Anthony Pierlioni (left) and Michael Musnick listen for the audible signal emanating from a turtle transmitter. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Anthony Pierlioni (left) and Michael Musnick listen for the audible signal emanating from a turtle transmitter. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Swampy area currently dry from the summer heat. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Swampy area currently dry from the summer heat. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Wood turtles are a large semi-aquatic turtle that uses a variety of habitats throughout the year. Currently, at the first site we visited, the water level was very low and most turtles were aestivating in the surrounding fields. Aestivation is a resting period during the hot summer where the turtles move from aquatic habitats and burrow down into loose soil or leaf litter to avoid temperature extremes. This makes them extremely difficult to locate. We zoned in on the location of a female and we searched a radius of about 20 feet where the signal was coming from. We were in waist high vegetation and searching was quite difficult. After about 10 minutes I found her practically at my feet covered up at the base of a grass clump.

Wood turtles depend on a habitat 'mosaic' and utilize all parts of their environment throughout the year including creeks, swamps, fields and even forested ridges as seen in the background. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Wood turtles depend on a habitat 'mosaic' and utilize all parts of their environment throughout the year including creeks, swamps, fields and even forested ridges as seen in the background. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

My first wood turtle found in the wild! Photograph by Anthony Pierlioni

My first wood turtle found in the wild! Photograph by Anthony Pierlioni

Site two with flowing water in the creek. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Site two with flowing water in the creek. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Moving on to site two, we met up with John Foley who works as a naturalist for a local nature preserve. John's study site was much wetter due to beaver activity damming the creek. We located two individuals. The first was found in the creek under some overhanging vegetation. It was a male who was missing his left front foot, likely from a curious raccoon. Many of the wood turtles at these sites are 'beat up,' showing many signs of old, healed injuries. Wood turtles can live to be 60-80 years old; the fact of their long-lives and that they move so much throughout different habitats means they are exposed to various threats including predators and roadways. John showed us some important nesting areas, including some which were being taken over by exotic plants, rendering them useless for future nesting.

A male wood turtle showing a missing front foot, likely due to a predator. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

A male wood turtle showing a missing front foot, likely due to a predator. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Deeper water can provide a cool respite from the summer heat. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Deeper water can provide a cool respite from the summer heat. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

One of the most used nesting areas at this site. The turtles nest in the sand and rubble above the high water mark. Encroaching near the sandy area is mugwort (Artemisia sp.) an exotic, INVASIVE species which shades the area and makes it unable to provide optimal incubation temperatures.

One of the most used nesting areas at this site. The turtles nest in the sand and rubble above the high water mark. Encroaching near the sandy area is mugwort (Artemisia sp.) an exotic, INVASIVE species which shades the area and makes it unable to provide optimal incubation temperatures.

Wood turtles will frequently hibernate in groups due to the few optimal places to do so. Under this overhanging bush is where many individuals have been found during their winter sleep. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Wood turtles will frequently hibernate in groups due to the few optimal places to do so. Under this overhanging bush is where many individuals have been found during their winter sleep. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Site three that John monitors was quite different than the others. This was an enclosed woodland with a high ridge bordering one side. John only has a few animals marked here but he says it is interesting to see how they use this unique habitat. He will frequently find an individual near the creek one week, then high on the ridge the next. We located a female near and old logging road about 75 feet up the ridge.

Site three was enveloped in a dense canopy. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Site three was enveloped in a dense canopy. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Female wood turtle showing the attached radio transmitter. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Female wood turtle showing the attached radio transmitter. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

This site's canopy opened up to a field and the beaver activity in the area created a series of wider and deeper ponds. John was interested in finding one of his youngest turtles he is tracking, a three year old.

Deeper water cause by the dams of beavers. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Deeper water cause by the dams of beavers. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

John attempting to pinpoint the location of a small three year old wood turtle. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

John attempting to pinpoint the location of a small three year old wood turtle. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

A three year old wood turtle. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

A three year old wood turtle. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh

Wood turtles are threatened for various reasons. Since they move extensively through their habitat, they frequently have to cross roads and many individuals are killed annually doing so. Exotic plants are encroaching into nesting areas making them unusable. Subsidized predators (those that live near humans and reach unnaturally high population levels) can prey on nearly 100% of eggs laid and take many of the adults as well. The pet trade also can take its toll on populations by people removing animals from their habitats. Wood turtles are illegal to capture in the wild in all states they occur in, but can fetch quite high prices in the pet trade. This makes it highly lucrative for poachers to try and capture them. This is also why I have been intentionally vague in describing where we were. I even used special software to scrub the location data from my cell phone pictures to prevent the localities from being found out. Poachers have been known to use scientific publications and cell phone pictures to locate study sites, and many researchers have lost study animals to this threat.

If you ever come across a wood turtle (or any other species) in Connecticut you can add it to our citizen science project, the Connecticut Turtle Atlas. In doing so you are helping me map out turtle distributions throughout the state. 

I thank Anthony, Michael, and John in having me out and sharing their time and knowledge with me.

Tim Walsh

Manager of Natural History Collections and Citizen Science