Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Big Season For Georgia's Smallest Turtle

Drought in the mountains the past two summers dried up much up the suitable habitat for bog turtles, but thanks to wet weather, increased trapping and improved management efforts, 2010 is looking like a record season for the smallest of Georgia’s protected turtles.

Federally threatened and listed as endangered in Georgia, bog turtles are rare in much of their native range due to loss of habitat. Researchers know of only 67 turtles in the state, 16 of which were released from a “headstart” restoration effort. With increased trapping efforts this year, 40 percent of the known bog turtles in Georgia were captured and released during the monitoring season.

Trapping allows biologists to monitor populations, find new ones and collect egg-bearing females for the headstart program.

In the past, trapping was limited to 30 traps. Efforts were ramped up in 2010 when help from a State Wildlife Grant that provided funding for more traps and supported two bog turtle interns for the summer, Bryan Hudson and Theresa Stratmann. With the additional staff, Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist Thomas Floyd was able to set 145 traps covering 12 sites in four counties.

“DNR’s recent bog habitat restoration efforts are a double-edged sword for bog turtle conservation,” Floyd said. While habitat improvements have been accomplished over the past three years, these efforts inadvertently made it harder to capture turtles that were previously concentrated in small pockets of suitable habitat. Yet, said Floyd, “The long-term benefits of these habitat improvements are well worth this added difficulty.”

Project Orianne joined the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section in bog turtle conservation efforts this year. With 40 traps from DNR, staff at Project Orianne, an organization furthering conservation of eastern indigo snakes, trapped in multiple sites in northeastern Georgia.

There are three reasons for trapping bog turtles. Primarily, biologists trap in order to monitor known populations, collect data from individual animals on an annual basis and document previously uncaptured individual turtles. The second reason is to collect gravid females for the Bog Turtle Headstart program, which is why trapping is done from mid-May to mid-July. Turtles are also trapped to identify potential new populations.

One such population was discovered this year at a Union County wetland. The find demonstrates why bog turtles, which are typically elusive, often go unnoticed by landowners. The new site had all the characteristics of bog turtle habitat. But it took a month before a turtle was captured -- a lone male. Since bog turtles are not known to travel great distances and the closest population is approximately three miles away, biologists assume this turtle represents a new population for the area.

In addition, three new turtles were trapped in a Towns County site that had not been monitored since 1997 due to a lack of resources, along with three new turtles within a known population in Fannin County.

Another development this season is Georgia’s entry into a cooperative effort with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Biological Resources Division. Genetic samples taken from every bog turtle captured will be sent to the Leetown Science Center in Kearneysville, W.V. In doing so, DNR has joined all other states with known bog turtle populations in supplying genetic samples that will help biologists begin to understand the relatedness among populations of turtles across different states, as well as among and within local populations in Georgia. Information gleaned from these analyses is expected to help guide Georgia’s headstart efforts in determining an appropriate genetic source for establishing new bog turtle populations within the species’ range in the state.

Of the 21 turtles captured and released so far in 2010, three were gravid. Starting this year, the Chattahoochee Nature Center, a long-time cooperator in Georgia’s Bog Turtle Headstart program, agreed to receive gravid females during this and subsequent seasons. Gravid turtles were held in captivity until eggs were laid. Although the collection of gravid females from the wild is an important source of hatchlings, in previous years more hatchlings have been produced from captive stock than from wild-caught turtles. Beginning next year, Chattahoochee Nature Center will also be breeding some 15 captive bog turtles produced from previous years of the Bog Turtle Headstart program.
To learn more about bog turtles, watch a short video here or visit the DNR Wildlife Resources Division’s website,

Georgians can help conserve bog turtles and other rare and endangered animals not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as native plants and habitats, through buying wildlife license plates featuring a bald eagle or a ruby-throated hummingbird. They can also donate to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund state income tax checkoff or contribute online and by mail. These programs are vital to the Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state general funds.

Visit for more information, or call Nongame Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218).

Bog turtles are the smallest turtles in North America, averaging only 3.5 inches in length. Dark in color they are easily distinguished by a bright orange blotch on the head behind each eye. Like many turtles, they will bask in the sun when active but when it gets too hot these little guys burrow deep into the boggy soil to escape the sun’s rays. Females will lay two to five eggs and hatchlings emerge 52-60 days later, usually in mid-August.


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