Is This Turtle Too Shy to Be Saved From Extinction?

Drought, development, and climate change are wiping out the hard-to-find Western pond turtle.
(Photo: Courtesy Center for Biological Diversity)
Apr 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The Western pond turtle may look like it has a permanent smile on its face, but perhaps it should be frowning instead. The turtles have vanished from their historical habitat in British Columbia and are rapidly disappearing in Washington, Oregon, and California, where up to 90 percent of their wetland habitat has been lost to agriculture and development. Last Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took notice and agreed that the turtle may need protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The decision comes in response to a 2012 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, which argued that habitat loss, disease, invasive species, and climate change have put the turtle on the fast track to extinction.

The turtles may be even more endangered than was originally thought three years ago. Last summer, new research emerged that revealed that the Western pond turtle could be two species, each of which may therefore be more at risk than was previously understood.

“We’re really glad the turtle has finally starting to get the attention that it deserves,” said Collette Adkins, a CBD biologist and lawyer.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will spend the next 12 months collecting information from scientists and the public to determine if the turtles (whether they are one or two species) deserve endangered species protection.

Gathering all the necessary data may not be easy.

“These turtles are very shy and retiring,” said David Shepherdson, deputy conservation manager at the Oregon Zoo, which has been involved in a program to raise young turtles in captivity for release back into the wild since 1998. “As soon as they hear people coming, they jump into the water and hide.”

That behavior puts them even more at risk, Shepherdson explained. The turtles—an example of an exothermic species—need to spend as much time as possible on top of logs basking in warm sunlight to reach a body temperature that allows them to metabolize their food and reproduce. “They either want to be in the water feeding or on the log soaking up the heat,” he said.

The other challenge in learning more about these turtles in the wild is that so many of their habitats have dried up, so there aren’t many left to observe. “They’re not really doing well anywhere because of the massive reduction in wetland,” Shepherdson said. “The wetland we have left continues to be under threat from agriculture and development.” He worries that drought will soon have an impact on the few wetlands that remain.

One thing scientists hope to learn soon is why so few Western pond turtles are currently surviving long enough after hatching to start reproducing.

“We know we’re not getting very many young, breeding-age animals entering the population, but we’re not exactly sure why,” Shepherdson said. Introduced predators such as bullfrogs and bass definitely appear to be eating the young turtles, but how many they consume remains a mystery.

Adkins said that even this week’s announcement should help to move research about Western pond turtles forward. “Once you’ve got a finding from the Fish and Wildlife Service that an endangered species listing might be coming down the pipeline, then all kinds of things get ramped up,” she said. “Even though it’s just the beginning of the process, so many things start to happen because you’ve got this attention that’s now been placed on the turtle.” She’s hopeful that the announcement will free up research funding to help determine where the turtles still live and what threats they face.

Shepherdson agreed that it’s an important time to focus not only on the turtles but on their habitats. “They’re great ambassadors for wetlands,” he said. “When turtles disappear, it’s a pretty good indication that something is wrong, and the other species that depend on that environment are probably in trouble as well.”

And that’s no reason to smile at all.