Wildlife Watch: Scientists try to spot the rare spotted turtle
SOUTHERN VERMONT (WCAX) - On a hot day in July, biologists gear up to check turtle traps in a southern Vermont wetland. Herpetologist Luke Groff with Vermont Fish and Wildlife leads the way.
“We have set traps in this wetland and we are with you to check these traps and with any luck, we will pull a spotted turtle out of one of the traps,” Groff said.
Joining Groff on the research mission are UVM Professor Brittany Mosher and the Orianne Society’s Kylie Briggs.
Their goal is to spot the spotted turtle. That’s why we can’t disclose the exact location.
“There are seven native species of turtles in Vermont and all but two of them-- the painted turtle and the snapping turtle-- have some sort of classification, something we call species of greatest conservation need, threatened or endangered. Spotted turtles are our rarest turtle, possibly even the rarest vertebrate. It’s endangered in the state and we have three known populations. And here we are in southern Vermont and this is one of them,” Groff said.
“Most people are familiar with painted turtles and snapping turtles. If you were to actually see a little black turtle with yellow spots, most people would realize right away that’s different than other turtles that I have been seeing,” Briggs said.
“We only know that they exist in three places in Vermont and we hope they exist in more places,” Mosher said.
Battling hot conditions and the swampy wetlands, the group checks the traps they baited the day before to catch the turtles.
“We will lure the turtles into this funnel trap. They go into this sort of hole and they can’t find their way back out until the next day when we release them. We check the traps every 24 hours,” Groff explained.
At this location, five traps were set. But after checking all the terrapin stations, they found no spotted turtles.
They did find fish and frogs, which Groff says is a good sign.
Luke Groff: The fact that we are finding the animals that we would expect to see here, some of the animals we expect to see in large numbers, bodes well.
Reporter Ike Bendavid: That gives hope that there might be spotted turtles in this wetland?
Luke Groff: Absolutely. We know there are spotted turtles at this site. I believe 24 individuals have been found and marked. In 2019 another group did some trapping and found 15. So we know they are here. It’s also a dry water year, so we know it’s warm so spotted turtles may have moved out upland or to other aquatic habitats.”
The work of setting traps is done through multiple partners that received a $250,000 grant from U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
“You might have heard the quote ‘you can only conserve what you understand.’ This is a species we don’t currently understand very well because it’s so rare. So we are hoping to get more information so that can lead to more conservation or management actions,” Mosher said.
The grant also brings in technology to help find the turtles.
“They are really hard to find even when they exist in a place, and so we are going to be using some advanced molecular technology called eDNA-- environmental DNA-- to essentially sample water to see if we can detect turtle skin cells in it. That will be a way to see if turtles occur in a site even if we don’t find them,” Mosher explained.
And if you see a spotted turtle, speak up.
“If anyone has seen a spotted turtle in Vermont, the most important thing you can do is report that sighting to Vermont Fish and Wildlife,” Briggs said.
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