In Search of Tennessee Bog Turtles

By Nathan Haislip

In the mountains of northeastern Tennessee where football fans bleed orange and the moonshine flows like water, lives a reclusive reptile, the Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii). Bog turtles have an incredibly fragmented range from Upstate New York to northern Georgia and were first discovered to occur in Tennessee the year I was born (1986). Zoo Knoxville has been working with the species since its discovery in Tennessee, its efforts pioneered by the renowned herpetologist Bern Tryon, the zoo’s former Curator of Herpetology. This turtle was particularly special for Bern and he spent countless hours tracking turtles, monitoring populations, and establishing a breeding program at the zoo to help supplement populations.

A newly hatched Bog Turtle at Zoo Knoxville. Pioneered by Bern Tryon, this hatch, rear, and release program has supplemented or introduced new turtle populations in Tennessee. Photo: Jordan Gray

This past weekend, my wife and I traveled to Tennessee, meeting up with Stephen Nelson, lead Herpetology Keeper at Zoo Knoxville, along with Chris Ogle, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA)-Region 4 Wildlife Diversity Officer, to search for this diminutive turtle. Although called the Bog Turtle, this turtle is truly an inhabitant of fens, another type of mire, and wet sedge meadows. Only one fen is known to have been naturally occupied by Bog Turtles in the state, with three other fens having since been populated with animals from the zoo’s repatriation program.

Bog Turtles commonly inhabit a unique environment called a fen. Fens of the southern Appalachians are an endangered habitat, easily altered or destroyed by human activities.
Photo: Nathan Haislip

The TWRA calls the Bog Turtle Tennessee’s most threatened turtle species and it is listed as Threatened by the state’s government agency. It’s thought that this species was once more abundant in the southern Appalachians, but due to severe habitat degradation and removal of the montane wetlands it occupies, populations of the species have significantly declined or been altogether extirpated. Now, the Bog Turtle is listed as a federally Threatened species, and Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). TWRA is excited to continue working with both The Nature Conservancy and Zoo Knoxville to conserve this species and its habitat.

A head started Bog Turtle in Zoo Knoxville’s Herpetology Department. Photo: Jordan Gray
A female Bog Turtle (center) easily hides in one of several naturalistic environments at Zoo Knoxville. Photo: Jordan Gray

On Monday morning we headed out for one of the fens where Zoo Knoxville performs their work after the chill of the morning had broken, as it had gotten down to 56°F the night before. Approaching the wetland, you could hear the trickling water from the adjacent mountain stream that supplies it with its moisture. In the thick grove of ferns, sedges, and grasses, with a base of sphagnum moss, it is difficult to keep your bearings as the vegetation is well above head height this late in the season. We used button bushes as markers to know where our processing station was, and what portions of the fen we had already sampled.

Finding Bog Turtles, especially during times of drought like Tennessee is currently experiencing, requires a lot of time on one’s hands and knees, patience, and a little luck. Photo credit: Erica Haislip

To locate turtles we employed two sampling techniques, using a wooden rod to lightly probe the soil until you feel resistance, which may indicate an ancient piece of wood from decades past, or may lead you to the shell of one of these cryptic creatures hiding deep in the muck. The second technique, which ultimately proved more successful, was to search on our hands and knees, thrusting our hands into any subterranean burrow we found—fingers were crossed there wasn’t an overly aggressive crawdad or a snappy water snake at the other end.

Zoo Knoxville’s Stephen Nelson finds the first Bog Turtle of the day, a female.
Photo: Nathan Haislip

Within the first twenty minutes, Stephen had located the first of these chelonian treasures, a mature female exhibiting file notches on her carapace from a previous capture. Upon releasing her, we continued our pursuit. The vegetation was unforgiving and each burrow checked resulted in more scratches along our arms from the saw-like blades of grass, but the payoff was worth it. Approximately an hour later, I too pulled a hunk of mud from the wetland, containing within it one of these gems, another marked female. Both animals were identified based on their notch marks, measured, and photographed prior to releasing them into the enclaves from which they were found.

TSA’s Nathan Haislip finds the second Bog Turtle of the day, another female.
Photo: Erica Haislip
Stephen Nelson and Nathan Haislip collect scientific data from a female Bog Turtle.
Photo: Erica Haislip

On this day, we managed to only find the two females, however, many Bog Turtles remain well hidden in this wetland, a testament to Zoo Knoxville and the TWRA’s relentless efforts. The populations managed by Zoo Knoxville and the TWRA have continued to grow in recent years. Reproduction was first documented in these fens in 2008, with a hatchling being captured by Bern. After Bern’s passing, the team at Zoo Knoxville has continued his legacy and the sites continue to produce more turtles for the future. Michael Ogle, Curator of Herpetology at Zoo Knoxville says, “While we still have more to learn about this critically endangered species, we remain confident that this species will persist in Tennessee for years to come.”

The future of the cryptic, yet charismatic Bog Turtle in Tennessee will require vigilant protection of its habitat and continued augmentation of its population through head starting. Photo: Nathan Haislip

Among other resources dedicated to their survival, the southern Bog Turtle population has benefited from the TSA Bern Tryon Southern Bog Turtle Fund. Next week, the Chattanooga, Tennessee Chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers is hosting a Drink Beer. Save Turtles. event to raise funds for Bern’s Bog Turtle Fund! Find out how to contribute by clicking HERE!