“Wood turtles, like trout, don’t like ugly places, and we need them as part of a healthy, functioning ecosystem,” said Tom Akre, research ecologist at the Smithsonian facility in Front. Royal, Virginia. “They matter because they are important indicators of our environment, and their presence – or absence – lets us know if there is clean water and clean air.
Wood turtles have lost much of their habitat as the waterways where they are typically found have been polluted by runoff from agricultural uses or overrun by nearby development, experts said.
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In Virginia, experts say wood turtles have “lost nearly half of their historic range” and are considered “one of the most endangered freshwater turtles in North America.”
Akre’s team plans to search for wood turtles in Rock Creek Park in the district using what’s called “environmental DNA” to determine how many are left. Because their population there can be low – and they are difficult to see in murky water – researchers take water samples and then filter them in a lab where DNA is extracted to see if it corresponds to that of a wood turtle.
“We basically use crime scene-like technology as markers to detect them,” Akre said.
The researchers placed GPS and radio transmitters on the wood turtles they found in northwest Virginia so they could better understand the distance they travel, especially when looking for a mate. In a few cases, they found instances of wood turtles crawling about 15 miles above the mountains of northwest Virginia and neighboring West Virginia to search for new streams and mates.
Finding turtles is not an easy task. They live under leaves in murky brown water. Researchers should tread carefully in stream beds. Once they find a turtle, they assign it a number and put notches on its shell to identify it and track it over time. They also note its length, width, height, weight, and any unique markings on its shell before putting it back in a stream.
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It is illegal to harass or possess wood turtles. The public should not disturb them and only watch them from a distance, experts have said. Smithsonian researchers are licensed to conduct wood turtle surveys under state research permits, and they are trained to handle them carefully with minimal disturbance to their habitats.
Adapting to a changing environment has been one of the biggest challenges for wood turtles. Bald eagles, for example, have made a resurgence in many areas, including the DC area, as they make their home in more populated urban and suburban areas. But for wood turtles, it’s not the same thing.
“Compared to most mammals and birds, everything wood turtles do is slow,” Akre said. “They grow slowly and reproduce slowly.”
Akre said it takes an average of 15 years for a wood turtle to grow and mature in order to reproduce. “So the fastest an offspring could mature and lay eggs would be around 30 years after their mother hatched,” he said.
But because “survival of eggs, hatchlings and juveniles is so low, it may actually take much longer for an average female wood turtle to replace herself with a mature, reproductive daughter,” Akre said. . “By the time an average newborn reaches maturity and successfully breeds offspring that survives to successfully breed offspring, they could be closer to 60 years old.”
Akre said newly hatched wood turtles are sometimes called the “M&Ms of wildlife” because they are “small, brown, and easy to eat,” making them easy prey for raccoons, herons, crows, skunks and foxes.
Experts said they believe wood turtles still thrive in about 30 to 40 waterways in the DC area, but lost much of their habitat long ago.
In Virginia, Akre said, all of their habitat along the Potomac River in parts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties almost disappeared. In Maryland, experts said, the wood turtle population has lost about a third to half of its range and is now mostly found in the western part of the state.
By tracking where the turtles are, Akre said, researchers can protect their landscape for better survival.
“If we don’t follow them and understand them,” Akre said, “then they may not be there.”