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Information iconThe spotted turtle's shell makes it a prize in the pet trade. It is illegal to trap the reptile, whose range extends from Maine to Florida. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Here, spot!

Researchers stalk at-risk turtle

Waynesboro, Georgia – On a late morning in early spring, in the flat woodlands of east Georgia, two men walked. They mucked along through mud and goo, over fallen limb and hidden stump. They periodically paused to examine traps, or peer in water the color of weak coffee.

Two men in hip waders walk through a stream
Houston Chandler (foreground) and Zach Cava of the Orianne Society wade a shallow pond, looking for spotted turtles as part of a multi-state research project. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has contracted with the society to learn more about the at-risk turtle. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

More times than not, they said:

“Nope.”

“Not here.”

“Uh-uh.”

The sun rose higher. Their shadows grew shorter. The day got warmer. And still the spotted turtle managed to avoid their gaze, their traps, their scientific instruments. It can be an elusive little beast.

Slightly altered crab traps are good for catching turtles, too. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.
Slightly altered crab traps are good for catching turtles, too. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Houston Chandler and Zach Cava persisted. They work for the Orianne Society, a Georgia nonprofit dedicated to learning more about reptiles and protecting them. The society, whose name derives from the founder’s daughter, for the past five years has been doing research on Clemmys guttata – its breeding habits, its movements. The organization hopes it will find new populations in the wooded, wet terrain where the reptile lives.

So does the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), which considers the turtle an at-risk species, one that will be evaluated for listing under the Endangered Species Act. (Canada already considers them endangered.) The Service works with the society, as well as other organizations, to learn more about the turtle. Georgia state biologists have listed the turtles as “rare.” The Service works with the society, as well as other organizations, to learn more about the turtle.

“They’re kind of a weird turtle,” said Chandler, 28. “Not many things live across a latitudinal gradient that large.”

Translation: You can find the spotted turtle from Maine to Florida. It’s found in forested areas where shallow waters provide good places for the creature to eat and multiply.

Cryptic species

For an animal so widely dispersed, not much is known about it – at least, not in Georgia. No one is sure how many live in the state, or in how many different breeding groups.

Biologists with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources call the turtle a “cryptic species.” That’s a scientist’s way of saying the animal is hard to find.

“They come out to bask in the sun … but you’re not going to run into them,” said Matt Elliott, DNR’s assistant chief of non-game species. He also offered an unscientific assessment: “They’re cool-looking.”

The research in east Georgia has become part of a scientific inquiry reaching from Maine to Florida. Its name is self-explanatory: the Conservation and Management of the Spotted Turtle Project.

The findings in Georgia and elsewhere could make a difference in the spotted turtle’s future, said Virginia’s state herpetologist, J.D. Kleopfer. He’s helping head the project, which began in January and will last three years. The inquiry is funded by more than $650,000, comprising federal money and matching funds.

What the Orianne Society and other researchers find will add to a bank of knowledge about the turtle. The Service is reviewing the turtle’s status to determine if it should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

That calls for a “wide” look at the turtle, from the northeastern tip of the nation to the coastal forests of Florida, Kleopfer said. “There are a lot of good players in this,” he said.

That includes Chandler, who has been doing research on the turtle since 2016, before the multistate program began. This year, Cava, 31, joined him.

Two men walking down a dirt road
Cava (left) and Chandler have been prowling the dark waters of east-central Georgia, looking for spotted turtles, since the beginning of the year. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

They tromp about in waterproof boots, reaching into dark waters and checking crab traps that have been modified to catch turtles. They drive driven along flat, dirt roads and stop where temporary ponds reflect the sky. They bait traps with sardines, whose oily essence is like perfume, guaranteed to turn a turtle’s head.

When they catch females, they affix each with a radio transmitter. Each is about the size of a pencil eraser, and allows biologists to track their movements – hopefully, to nests. That’s especially important in spring, breeding season, when the boys and girls are trying to find each other in the still-cool waters.

In a not-very-scientific inventory, they give their turtles names: Chunky, Swamp Rat, Bubbles, Tank. And Grover.

More about Grover in a little bit.

A fanged watcher

Chandler is the son of academics and grew up in Statesboro, Georgia. His dad is an ornithologist, a bird enthusiast. The elder Chandler often took his son on birding trips, where the boy had an epiphany.

“I discovered that looking at things through binoculars was not as fun as getting my hands on them.”

Even when things turned out to have teeth. “One of my earliest memories,” he said, “is getting hammered by a rat snake when I picked it up.” Cava came to Georgia by way of Philadelphia, with some stops in-between. He interned in Massachusetts for the Service and did some time prowling about in the Apalachicola National Forest in Florida.

Like Chandler, he has no apparent fear of snakes – a good thing, too.

On their March outing, they came across a fanged reminder to step carefully – Crotalus horridus.

“Timber rattler!” Cava couldn’t keep the excitement out of his voice.

Perhaps three feet long, it was stretched out on a narrow limb that had fallen across an old agricultural ditch. It just happened to be within a few feet of a turtle trap.

“Cool!” Chandler replied. He pulled out his iPhone, crouched and aimed. Click!

The snake ignored them. They did the same to the snake, turning their backs on the scaly creature to check the trap. No turtle. They moved on. A few moments later, the snake moved on, too. It crawled along the branch, muscles rippling under scales that repeated a light-dark pattern. In the heights, the wind in the trees sighed.

Grover

The spotted turtle is a pretty thing, dark-shelled and dappled with BB-sized spots. Each looks as if it walked under a paint brush dripping yellow paint. Their distinct pattern makes them a favorite in the pet trade.

Taking a species already at risk from potential breeding partners will only hasten the spotted turtle’s slide into threatened status, Chandler said.

To avoid poachers, the society is close-mouthed about where it searches for turtles. Chandler and Cava don’t tell people where they stalk their hard-shelled quarry.

It’s safe to say this much: The woodlands the pair visit is a tract where snowy egrets wing through the trees and owls exchange late-morning hoots. Some of it once was farmland; now, it grows turtles. But how many?

A man in a burgandy shirt holding two small turtles
Chandler checks out two mud turtles he caught in a trap. The caged traps gave up mud turtles and a lot of big, irritated crayfish — but no spotted turtles.

If the traps were any indication, not a lot. Some cages surrendered mud turtles, which are more commonplace than their speckled cousins. Nearly every trap held crayfish – big, irritated crayfish.

Chandler and Cava dispatched each back to the dark waters from where’d they’d come. They walked on.

They’d come to the last of 15 traps. No turtles. Chandler, peering into the depths, stopped. He yelled for Cava. Chandler held up something about the size of a big bar of soap.

Grover.

An outstretched hand holding a dark turtle shell in the sun. The turtle is fully protected by his wrangled shell.
This adult male spotted turtle is old – nicked and banged by time and would-be predators. Researchers call him “Grover,” named after the homely “Sesame Street” monster. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

‘Ugliest spotted turtle’

He’s been found, off and on, for several years. An old male turtle, he’s named after that homely monster from “Sesame Street.” Like the puppet for which he’s named, Grover is not particularly handsome.

Chandler: “This is literally the ugliest spotted turtle I have ever seen.”

Life has not been kind to Grover, whose shell features a series of nicks that identify him. Over the years, various predators – raccoons, or maybe otters – have tried to eat Grover. His carapace is proof. It is scored with grooves left by sharp teeth. Each time, he has managed to swim away.

Chandler and Cava got busy. They measured Grover, then weighed him. They jotted their findings on a sheet of paper affixed to a clipboard.

A man holding a dark turtle
Cava and Grover. Before releasing him, Cava ​and ​Chandler weighed and measured the turtle. Their research will help Georgia officials learn more about spotted turtles as well as add to information for a national study. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Grover didn’t like it. He slid into his shell and refused to move. When Cava placed him on a mound of wet dirt, Grover did what has worked in the past. He played dead.

The two men stood in the water and watched. After a minute, maybe two, they saw a slight movement – Grover, sticking a cautious nose into the warming air. Neither moved. Grover slid his head out a little bit more. Chandler leaned over to pick him up.

Ffft! Grover clammed up again. They returned him to the water.

The take for the day: Four mud turtles, maybe 30 crayfish, and Grover.

“The day before?” Chandler asked, “We found lots of turtles.”

That’s how it goes in turtle hunts. For such slow-moving creatures, they can get away pretty quickly.

Contact

Mark Davis, public affairs specialist
mark_r_davis@fws.gov, (404) 679 7291

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