Wildlife Watch: Protecting the mysterious wood turtle

Updated: May. 11, 2021 at 4:08 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Wood turtles are mysterious critters that call Vermont home. But research shows human interaction is contributing to their decline.

With a bright orange color, wood turtles can live up to 60 years.

You might not recognize this reptile. It’s not as common as its relatives, painted or snapping turtles, that are found near lakes and ponds.

“Wood turtles, they are a really special animal. They actually depend on stream habitat. You are unlikely to find them in lakes or ponds. They spend the winter in streams but in the summer they are really more of a land animal and they might spend weeks on end foraging in the flood plains in the upland habitat and a typical wood turtle may end up 1,000 feet from the streams every year. And, unfortunately, because they are spending so much time on land, they are encountering some threats that those other turtles might not get exposed to such as cars and tractors,” said Kiley Briggs, the Northeast Turtle Conservation Coordinator for the Orianne Society. “You look in the eyes of a wood turtle and you see an intelligent animal looking back at you.”

Briggs is in charge of researching the wood turtle and conserving its habitat. It’s a species in trouble.

“What I’m trying to do is incorporate wood turtle management and wood turtle habitat restoration into those working landscapes,” Briggs said.

The population is in decline because of human interaction, mostly near farms where farm machinery unknowingly injures or kills the turtles.

“In many cases, farmers are not aware these turtles are here. Wood turtles are extremely secretive animals. They spend most of their time hiding,” Briggs said.

Along with field technician Mel Lohrer, they led us out to a restoration site in the Northeast Kingdom. We’ve agreed not to share the exact location to protect the turtles and their environment, and to keep it secret from poachers who sell wood turtles on the international black market.

“They are getting collected, basically being stolen from their environment and being sold overseas, typically in Asia,” Briggs said.

Near a stream, Briggs is quick to point out one of their GPS-tagged turtles basking in the sun. With an up-close look, you can see it’s because of their shells that they are called wood turtles.

“Those rings correspond to approximately every year they been alive,” Briggs explained. “Those rings also make it look like the turtle has been carved out of wood. People think they are called wood turtles based on their habitat. If they were named after their habitat, we would call them stream turtles.”

But the turtles are a shy species and are usually harder to find.

“So, that turtle we found just a moment ago basking on the bank of the river, kind of out in the open, is a little unusual,” Briggs said. “When these turtles are out on land, they go for cover. It wouldn’t surprise me to find this guy wedged into some of these vines and debris.”

Using radio telemetry, Briggs is able to locate the second turtle of the day hidden in the tall grass.

“The moment we got out here, I noticed the signal was 90 degrees to my side. So, OK, I know I’m in the process of passing this turtle. He is probably a few feet of me on the left and then I looked and here he is,” Briggs said.

The goal of tracking the turtles is to understand where they spend most of their time. That helps the Orianne Society and Vermont Fish and Wildlife make strategic decisions about habitat restoration and landowner outreach.

“The main point is to just give these turtles space to forage so they don’t have to go out into those agricultural fields and they are not forced to cross roads as often, they have what they need close to the river,” Briggs said.

Radio telemetry is just one way to gather more information about the wood turtle. And now, more tracking is being added.

“With radio telemetry, we can tell exactly where a turtle is at a given point when we find them, but we don’t know in between those times when we find them how they are using that landscape. So, using these GPS trackers, they are set up to take information on 10-minute intervals and with this information, we can then decipher how they are actually using this landscape,” Lohrer said.

That information helps several species.

“When you do that, when you are actually managing the habitat for woods turtle because they actually depend on the rivers and the uplands and the connectivity between those two different places, you’re benefiting all sorts of different wildlife,” Briggs said.

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