Statewide Search is On for One of R.I.’s Rarest Turtles
January 7, 2022
Wood turtles are among the rarest turtles in Rhode Island, and little is known about where they can be found and what conservation strategies may boost their populations.
A University of Rhode Island graduate student is taking the first steps in addressing those questions by surveying the state to identify local populations of the turtle and the habitat they require from season to season.
“There has never been a statewide survey of wood turtles in Rhode Island before, and before we can protect them, we have to figure out where they are,” said Chloe Johnson, a native of Atlanta who is in her second year of studying the turtles as part of her master’s degree.
Wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta), which have been proposed for inclusion on the federal endangered species list, are found from Virginia to southern Canada and west to Minnesota. Sporting orange patches on their neck and legs, they spend time in slow-moving rivers and streams and in terrestrial environments like forests, croplands, and pastures. They nest in open sandy areas.
Working in collaboration with URI associate professor Nancy Karraker and Scott Buchanan at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Johnson conducted upland surveys last summer in hopes of finding nesting turtles, and she scoured rivers and streams during the spring and fall. So far, she has identified 13 locations where the turtles have been documented. But finding the turtles has been harder than she expected.
“I’ve done more than 70 surveys and found fewer than 15 wood turtles,” she said. “They’re much more difficult to find than I anticipated. In the summer I went three weeks without seeing one. It’s hard, but when you find one it’s so much more rewarding.”
In the upcoming field season, when Johnson finds a wood turtle, she will attach a GPS data logger on its shell so she can track its movements.
“We want to know where the turtles go at night. Are they in fields or forests or streams?” she said. “How often do they cross roads? We’ve seen and heard from a lot of people that they’re seen crossing roads. Maybe we can find potential hot spots of road mortality.”
Wood turtles, which weigh 2-3 pounds and are 6-9 inches long, are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation from the construction of roads, houses, and other human-based development, according to Johnson. Their streams are also being negatively impacted by development. In addition, their bright coloration makes them popular in the pet trade and a prime target for wildlife traffickers.
“They’re endangered range-wide,” Johnson said, “but compared to surveys in Virginia, they’re much harder to find here in Rhode Island.”
The graduate student anticipates completing her wood turtle research by fall 2022, when she hopes to have located previously unidentified breeding areas that state wildlife officials can include in future management and conservation plans.