Four summers ago, in August 2018, state wildlife agents raided the home of a former biology teacher in upstate New York. Inside, they found hundreds of reptiles, including king cobras, gila monsters, and scores of native turtles, some considered endangered or threatened and all protected under New York state law. Snakes and lizards aside, it was not clear why this man had such a large and forbidden collection of turtles, where he got them, or what he intended to do with them.
In recent years, though, there have been many other turtle “collectors” in the eastern United States whose intentions have been quite clear. Over the past decade, demand in Asia especially for “exotic” American turtles has skyrocketed. Homegrown poachers have actively responded to demand, taking thousands of turtles per year out of their native habitats along the east coast of the United States and selling them domestically or overseas for sometimes hundreds of dollars each.
Illegal collection of turtles is not a new problem, but in the eastern United States it has hit a crisis level. Fortunately, law enforcement is stepping up its anti-poaching efforts, and turtle conservation advocates are working diligently to house, rehabilitate, and when possible, restore confiscated animals to the wild.
Five of the turtles taken in the New York raid were wood turtles that have since found refuge at the Maryland Zoo. They are central to the Zoo’s expanding efforts, in partnership with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), to bolster populations of this native species throughout the state. Their story is a case study of conservation in action. Before getting to their story, though, some background on this iconic riverine and riparian reptile of North America is in order.
An Unlikely Icon
Wood turtles are prized by poachers, yet you would be hard-pressed to find a more lowkey luminary. They sit on the bottom of clear, flowing streams and rivers. They move quietly on shore. They forage without fuss in nearby fields and woodlands. They don’t even bask out in the open, preferring to tuck beneath grass rather than soak up sun on a log. Up close, though, wood turtles are handsome reptiles with sculpted shells, red or orange legs, and dark pools for eyes. They are admired for good reason.
Most of their time is spent in water. They over-winter in the shallows of streams and rivers and stay in or very near water during spring and fall as well. LinkExample Only during the warmer months do they venture into nearby woods or fields to feed. Summer nesting and foraging seasons are the most perilous times of year for adult wood turtles because that is when they are most likely to cross a road, be crushed by farm machinery, or encounter a person who might pick them up and carry them away. (And by the way, even if you mean well, it is best not to touch any wild turtle unless you are helping it cross a road safely.)
For wood turtle hatchlings, life is perilous from the get-go. Females deposit their eggs in early summer in sunlit, sandy depressions near water. If the eggs are not dug up and eaten by raccoons, skunks, foxes, or other predators, hatchlings emerge in late summer. They come into the world about the size and shape of a smushed ping-pong ball. To a raccoon, they are a perfect bite-sized snack, and those tiny four-legged snacks have to make it from nest to stream without getting snatched. Most do not make it. (One study conducted in Canada found that only 11% of wood turtle hatchlings survived their first two months of life.)
A Century of Decline
Wood turtles were once plentiful in forested watersheds stretching from Nova Scotia to Virginia, but the species has been on the decline for at least a century, and that decline is accelerating. Wood turtles are considered endangered by the IUCN, the world’s leading conservation organization, and are designated as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) by all 17 U.S. states in which they occur, including Maryland.
These turtles do best in pristine habitat far from human activity. Almost all of the major threats to wood turtles are human-induced: habitat loss and degradation due to agriculture and development projects; nest disturbance; vehicle collision; injury or death from farm machinery; and increased predation from “human-subsidized” predators such as raccoons and crows. Illegal collection severely exacerbates their already challenged existence.
The Power of One
Wood turtles, like most turtles, are slow to reproduce and have high hatchling mortality. They persist only in small, isolated populations. This combination of factors makes every breeding adult wood turtle precious. Remove just one from its home territory, and that could imperil an entire population, not to mention the one turtle.
Adult wood turtles come to know their home territories well and tune in to particular over-wintering, basking, nesting, and foraging sites. “Once they are out of home range, they are at a real disadvantage,” explains Kevin Barrett, the Zoo’s collection manager of reptiles and amphibians. “They won’t necessarily pine away for their home territory, but now they’re in unfamiliar surroundings where they might have more trouble finding food or locating water. It also puts them at higher risk because they may inadvertently cross streets or get into fenced areas that they can’t navigate.”
What’s bad for the one turtle is even worse for the population. Wood turtles do not start to breed until they are in their teens, and females typically lay only one clutch per year of approximately ten eggs, most of which get eaten. These strikes against robust population growth are offset by the fact that wood turtles can live 50 years or more. Adults can breed for many, many years once they start, but the permanent loss of any male or female from the gene pool is inevitably detrimental to that population.
Imagine, though, that a wood turtle snatched from its home territory could eventually be returned. If that were possible, and if that turtle could start breeding once more, the long-term damage to the population could be mitigated. This is precisely why Scott Smith, Wildlife Ecologist at Maryland DNR, referred the wood turtles confiscated in New York to the Maryland Zoo. He did so for a very specific reason: because genetic testing confirmed that they came from a Maryland watershed. Genetic testing and mapping are relatively new frontiers in turtle conservation, with game-changing, hope-inducing potential. LinkExample
Ideally, these five turtles would have gone straight back to their native watershed, but given the conditions in which they were illegally held, this was deemed too risky. They had been exposed to too many turtles from various states and could harbor diseases or parasites that testing might miss. After conferring with New York authorities, Smith contacted Barrett and Dr. Ellen Bronson, Senior Director of Animal Health, Research & Conservation at the Zoo, and proposed that the Zoo and Maryland DNR jointly manage a Wood Turtle Headstart program using these animals as genetic founders.
The Maryland watersheds that support wood turtle populations are very distinct and isolated, so you can really tell genetically which turtles are from which watershed. We want to keep it that way for a number of reasons, including being able to return confiscated animals to the proper watershed later on.
How to Headstart
One of the turtles, clearly weakened from its time held in substandard conditions, has since died, but the remaining four will have the chance to breed this spring. They live together in an off-exhibit area and are cared for by the Maryland Wilderness team. Should breeding produce eggs, keepers will collect and incubate them. Any hatchlings will be transferred immediately to the Zoo Hospital and raised in isolation to keep them safe from disease exposure. The hope is that within one year, hatchlings will be large enough to release in the same watershed from which the founders came.
“The Maryland watersheds that support wood turtle populations are very distinct and isolated,” says Barrett, “so you can really tell genetically which turtles are from which watershed. We want to keep it that way for a number of reasons, including being able to return confiscated animals to the proper watershed later on.”
Before release, hatchlings must reach a size not only to avoid predation but also to bear the weight of a tiny transmitter that will allow researchers to track their progress. “When you do a headstart program,” says Bronson, “you want to produce offspring, but you also want to have somewhere appropriate to put them and then have them thrive.” Breeding is an important part of the equation but choosing the best release sites and doing proper long-term monitoring are equally important. To that end, the transmitters are essential, as is the ongoing survey work that Zoo staff are doing in the field with DNR and other conservation partners to assess the size and health of different wild populations.
This spring, an intrepid team from the Zoo and DNR will climb into chest waders, ford cold streams, and survey once more for wood turtles. This time, they hope to finalize the release site for the first headstart “graduate,” a juvenile wood turtle that hatched at the Zoo nearly two years ago from an egg laid by an injured, rescued female that has since been returned to her native watershed. Now large enough to wear a transmitter, the graduate will forge a trail that hopefully many more will follow.
Persistence and Partnership
“The great thing about this project is how collaborative it is, which is the way a good conservation project should be,” says Dr. Bronson of the Wood Turtle Headstart Program, which aligns with the Zoo’s Native Maryland Species Signature Animal Program (SAP). “Within the Zoo, we’re involving a lot of staff and working across departments. We also have strong partnerships on this project with DNR and the Susquehannock Wildlife Society. Meanwhile, DNR’s work ties into a larger regional effort involving a dozen or so state wildlife agencies to conserve wood turtles along the east coast.”
The success of wood turtle conservation – and all turtle conservation – rests on just this sort of persistent, comprehensive, and collaborative approach. In this particular case, success also rests with the four rescued founders. Their future offspring, with any luck and great care, will inhabit the very same watershed from which the founders were illegally taken.