TSA-NAFTRG Field Update

by Jordan Gray 

The professional and citizen scientists from the TSA’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (TSA-NAFTRG) immersed themselves in water bodies from Texas to Pennsylvania this late Summer and Fall to conduct sampling sessions for long-term population monitoring efforts.

The third-quarter’s sampling season began with several springs in the Central and Big Bend regions of Florida. A seasoned team of researchers led by Tabitha Hootman and Wayne Osborne surveyed Blue, Wekiwa, Rock, Manatee, and Fanning springs. Wekiwa Springs, TSA-NAFTRG’s longest running population study, yielded poorer results than is typical with 54 captures of five species: Eastern Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), Florida Redbelly Cooter (Pseudemys nelsoni), Loggerhead Musk Turtle (Sternotherus minor minor), Peninsula Cooter (Pseudemys floridana peninsularis), and Yellowbelly Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta). An active rainy season, combined with torrential downpours during the survey period decreased visibility with silt and tannin-filled runoff. Due to these conditions the remainder of the Wekiwa sample had to be cancelled. This was the first time in the 18-year history of surveying Wekiwa Springs that the sample had to be cancelled after the first day.

Snapping Turtle

Nicole Salvatico and Joe Pignatelli hold two Eastern Snapping Turtles.

Over at nearby Rock Springs in Kelly Park existed a different story however, as the relatively fast-flowing run prevented the rains from reducing water clarity. Despite the added component of heavy utilization of the spring run by swimmers and tubers during the sampling, researchers were still able to capture 61 specimens representing six species, with the addition of two not found at Wekiwa this sampling session: Striped Mud Turtle (Kinosternon baurii) and Eastern Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina). The sample of Kelly Park was highlighted by Wayne Osborne simultaneously capturing two large Eastern Snapping Turtles; an impressive feat for any professional chelonian wrangler to say the least!

Mud Turtle

A beautiful male Striped Mud Turtle.

The sample at Blue Spring, a winter haven for hundreds of West Indian Manatees (Trichechus manatus), provided discouraging findings of a medical nature. Of the 28 specimens representing three species captured (Florida Redbelly Cooter, Loggerhead Musk Turtle, and Yellowbelly Slider), with 20 of those being Loggerhead Musk Turtles, a serious malady was found to afflict the majority of the Musk Turtles. Emaciated, lesion covered specimens of this species were found to be the norm within the spring run, with several more found deceased on the bottom of the waterway. The finding of these dead and ailing turtles created a somber atmosphere felt by all the researchers. Specimens were sent off for necropsy and histopathology to Dr. Terry M. Norton of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Despite the findings in the necropsy and histopathology report, the underlying cause is still unknown. TSA-NAFTRG is currently developing a plan to appropriately investigate the root of the problem.

That weekend, as Tropical Storm Emily moved into Central Florida, the research team picked up camp and traversed to Florida’s west coast, an area left unscathed by Emily, to sample Manatee and Fanning springs. These springs proved the most productive of the week-long sampling event with 46 captures representing 5 species at Manatee and 69 captures representing 5 species at Fanning. The species found at these springs include: Eastern Snapping Turtle, Florida Redbelly Cooter, Loggerhead Musk Turtle, Peninsula Cooter, Suwannee Cooter (Pseudemys suwanniensis), and Yellowbelly Slider. A momentarily terrifying situation occurred for one of our researchers – after cleaning her dive mask, she refocused her vision only to find herself face-to-face with an 11 ft. (3 m) American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)!

Florida Turtle

The TSA-NAFTRG Florida crew holding a variety of turtle species.

Immediately following the sampling of the Florida springs, TSA-NAFTRG technicians representing Ontario, Canada and the states of Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington converged upon Charleston, South Carolina for the TSA/IUCN-TFTSG 15th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. University of New England and Florida springs regular, Madeleine Morrison, presented on Eastern Musk Turtle prey selection, while Director Eric Munscher presented on the first year’s monitoring success of Western Alligator Snapping Turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) in the Houston, Texas region.

Meanwhile in late August in Texas, a rapidly evolving hurricane which would create one of the most catastrophic floods in recorded U.S. history, bore down on TSA-NAFTRG’s study site for Western Alligator Snapping Turtles in the Greater Houston Metropolitan Area. The intense flooding associated with Hurricane Harvey delayed sampling efforts for the species, and in some areas, significantly altered their habitat. Early in the morning of September 12, Eric Munscher, Jordan Gray, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Division’s Kelly Norrid were alerted by the Wildlife Center of Texas (WCT) to a large adult alligator snapping turtle that, displaced by the flooding, had been found crossing an urban road in the wee hours of that morning. The Houston SPCA, with the help of the Houston Police Department had retrieved the turtle out of the road and delivered it to the WCT. The animal turned out to be an old adult male that TSA-NAFTRG scientists had tagged this February. Knowing the exact location of his home-range, “Harvey,” as he was aptly named, was released into his stretch of bayou.

Alligator Snapping Turtle Texas

Sharon Schmalz, Eric Munscher, Jordan Gray, and Kelly Norrid pose with “Harvey” during a media press event.

In late September, following the aftershocks of Hurricane Harvey, TSA-NAFTRG resumed business as usual in the Texas Hill Country sampling the Comal Springs and Bull Creek in New Braunfels and Austin, respectively. Despite a high technician attendance at Comal Springs, the specimen captures were relatively low at 341 captures representing 4 species (Yes, that’s low for this study site!): Eastern Snapping Turtle, Eastern Musk Turtle, Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) and Texas Cooter (Pseudemys texana). An offshoot project for this study site officially began after preliminary work this year to assess the health of the Eastern Snapping Turtles in the spring through tissue sampling. Five years of mark-recapture in this system has yielded a population of snapping turtles all afflicted with carapacial pitting and skin lesions, and zero captures of juvenile or hatchling age classes. This project is being spearheaded by Viviana Ricardez, Carl J. Franklin, and Michael Skibsted.

The following week, technicians descended upon Bull Creek adjacent to the County Line on the Lake barbeque to not only perform a sampling event but to also represent the TSA at “Turtlemania 2,” a “Drink Beer, Save Turtles!” (DBST) outreach event hosted by Count Line Barbeque and featuring “River Beer,” a craft selection courtesy of Hops and Grain Brewing. The two-day sampling event which was open to public viewing saw 161 turtle captures representing six species including Guadalupe Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera guadalupensis), Eastern Snapping Turtle, Texas Map Turtle (Graptemys versa), Texas Cooter, Eastern Musk Turtle, and Red-eared Slider.

Drink Beer. Save Turtles.

A male and female Texas Map Turtle pose with Hops and Grain Brewing’s “River Beer”.

Late September also saw the beginning of a new TSA-NAFTRG population monitoring site in New Jersey as a team led by Joe Pignatelli dove into the waters of the northwest quadrant of the state in search of riverine species. With a focus on Northern Map Turtles (Graptemys geographica) the team successfully found them and four other species of sympatrically occurring turtle: Northern Red-bellied Cooter (Pseudemys rubriventris), Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta picta), Eastern Musk Turtle, and Eastern Snapping Turtle. The study featuring Northern Map Turtles will help aid New Jersey in creating a conservation plan for this disjunct population of the species.

Map Turtle

Joe Pignatelli systematically marks a Northern Map Turtle in New Jersey.

The Spring of 2017 marked the official start to a collaborative population monitoring for North American Wood Turtles (Glyptemys insculpta) and other sympatric species in Southeastern and South-Central Pennsylvania between TSA-NAFTRG and theTurtleRoom (tTR). Building upon their Spring findings, teams led by Steve Enders and Andy Weber entered the creeks in search of Wood Turtles who have made their Autumnal return to water to breed and brumate over winter. Over two sampling sessions at our two respective study sites, the teams located twelve Wood Turtles and one Eastern Musk Turtle. A third and final sampling session for the Fall is scheduled for November.

Wood Turtle

Steve Enders and Andy Weber measure a male North American Wood Turtle in Pennsylvania.

While in Pennsylvania, the TSA and theTurtleRoom also collaborated with Spoonwood Brewing Co. in Pittsburgh to host another highly-successful “Drink Beer, Save Turtles!” event. This is the second DBST event hosted by Spoonwood Brewing. Attendees were treated to an ice-cold “Turtle Recall” Imperial Pale Ale, chatted with our field researchers, met an assortment of chelonian species supplied by theTurtleRoom, and walked home with brand new DBST merchandise.

Lastly, after the flood waters receded from the Greater Houston Metropolitan Area, the Texas-based scientists were able to get back into the bayous to continue our work studying the Western Alligator Snapping Turtle. The most recent sample yielded two new individuals, an adult female and juvenile male, in a segment of bayou ravished by the flood waters. While a lower capture yield than usual for the effort, new individuals are always a welcome sight, especially considering the volume of water that had recently moved through the study site. The team will return to this area in November to continue with our monthly sampling for the species.

Every quarter of sampling brings new volunteers, new ideas, the joy of seeing old “turtle friends” and the hopes of finding new ones. At TSA-NAFTRG we are always “turtle rich.”

Alligator Snapping Turtle Texas

TSA-NAFTRG Director Eric Munscher holds two juvenile Western Alligator Snapping Turtles.