2010-05-06 / Local & State

In Search Of A Tiny Turtle ...

By Ad Crable

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) – “Don’t worry about stepping on them,’’ George C. Gress says. “If you do, you’ll just push them into the mud.’’

He has donned rubber waders and entered a mucky meadow in northern Lancaster County on a splendidly sunny morning in search of Pennsylvania’s smallest turtle and one of the most rare in North America.

This 108-acre wet area, now owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy as the Acopian Preserve, is one of the most celebrated homes of the bog turtle, a diminutive reptile that easily rests in the palm of your hand. The largest ever found stretched a mere 4.5 inches.

Here, hopefully, lives a turtle at least 49 years old, the oldest documented bog turtle ever found. Ole 9322, a female, is missing toes, probably from a predator encounter, and was first marked with several drill holes on her carapace in 1971. She was last held here in 2007.

Researchers think bog turtles can live to be 70 or 80 years old. Maybe this turtle will prove that.

“It blew my mind to think there’s a turtle here older than me,’’ laughs Gress, who has been working with the bog turtles here since 1993.

He first came to this spot as an amateur photographer and immediately fell in love with the dainty, mysterious creatures.

Tiny transmitters have been stuck to the back shells of these bog turtles with plumber’s putty. From 2003 to 2008, researchers followed the little guys, learning invaluable information about their travel routes, preferred habitat, nesting and hibernation times, and other habits. Two previously unknown nesting areas were discovered.

Glyptemys muhlenbergii was discovered right here in Lancaster County by colonial botanist (and Franklin & Marshall College founder), the Rev. Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg, as he was searching for new plants.

Until 1956, it was known as Muhlenberg’s turtle, but renamed bog turtle when scientists decided they didn’t like wildlife named after people.

The renaming was somewhat inaccurate, as it turns out. The turtles don’t live in bogs but soggy meadows with little tussocks of grass.

They spend 70 percent of their life in the mud.

The very specific habitat favored by bog turtles is one reason they are so rare.

In the old days, grazing elk, bison and deer kept these kinds of fields open and from growing into a forest.

Now, TNC uses goats and cattle to keep vegetation at bay in this meadow. The group also has used prescribed burns.

Just as importantly, the animals’ hooves create the little pockets of water and exposed clumps of grass the cold-blooded turtles need for sunning and laying eggs.

In pre-settlement times, scientists think there were a lot more wetlands created by beaver dams. Bog turtles could travel between sites.

“But now, they are boxed in by houses and roads,’’ says Gress, TNC Pennsylvania’s land steward and fire specialist.

Also contributing to the turtles’ scarcity is the fact that they are so coveted by poachers. A bog turtle can bring $1,000 on the pet trade’s black market.

Bog turtles were poached from this site in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, to thwart poachers, TNC has begin inserting little tags the size of a grain of rice under the turtles’ skin. Enforcement officials can run a wand over the tag and determine the turtle’s origin.

Video cameras and scouting cameras may soon be deployed to guard over the grounds. And TNC does not give out specific locations of preserves such as this.

Foxes and birds of prey can kill bog turtles. Opossums and raccoons eat their eggs, which are laid in the open.

“But the worst predator is man,’’ Gress notes.

Bog turtles don’t reproduce until they 7 or 8 years old and only lay three to five eggs annually.

“That’s why removing a couple turtles could send a colony into a downward spiral,’’ Gress observes.

In December, the Endangered Species Coalition named the bog turtle among 10 species of wildlife in America that could perish from the effects of global warming. Changing weather could dry out or flood bog turtles’ delicate habitat, the group said.

There are perhaps 100 bog turtle colonies in the United States. This part of Pennsylvania and the Poconos is a stronghold of the northern range. Then, there are no bog turtles for 250 miles until another pocket is found in the higher elevations of North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia.

The last estimate here in this preserve was 30 to 50 bog turtles. In the 1970s, more than 200 were counted.

Right now, Gress hasn’t found a single one. He gets excited several times when Gress spots turtles lounging on tufts of grass. But, all four times, they turn out to be spotted turtles, turtles similar in size and markings to bog turtles that share the same type of habitat.

As the sun gets hotter and the bugs more ravenous, Gress just has to make a final swing through one of his most reliable spots on the way to his truck.

In a small patch of alders, Gress’ experienced eyes settle on the glint of a dark upper shell of a turtle.

He hurries over and reaches down, and is surprised to find a bog turtle mounting an empty turtle shell.

The struggling live turtle is a male whose shell looks like someone took a polishing wheel to it. All that burrowing into the mud has worn off the patterns, called annuli, on the shell.

There is an old U-shaped notch made in the rear of the turtle’s underside shell. Gress thinks that was the marking system used by a researcher who worked here in the 1980s. Gress estimates the turtle’s age at least 30 years old.

Gress measures and weighs the turtle and marks where it was found in the chart he keeps on the preserve’s inhabitants.

He releases the turtle and it scurries for an open spot and burrows into the mud, completely gone from sight in about 10 seconds.

Then he turns to the shell of the dead turtle. It, too, has been found before. The drill holes in its shell means it was first marked prior to 1982.

He takes note of the exact location of the holes and consults his chart. It is that of a female that was one of the turtles fitted with a radio transmitter and had last been handled in 2005. He estimates her age at more than 40.

Gress is saddened by her demise and turns the shell over in his hand for a last look.

“That’s a shame. Who knows what her downfall was. It’s always kind of sad finding one that just didn’t make it.

“But she obviously lived a long life, so she hopefully contributed her genetic makeup to the population here.’’

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