The bog turtle, a 4-inch turtle native to the northeastern and mountainous mid-Atlantic, is critically endangered. They live in mountainous wetlands, a rapidly disappearing biome in the US. Scientists from The Nature Conservancy have been monitoring this site in the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts for the past 30 years, a study vital to understanding how climate change and ecological degradation can affect turtle and other species populations. This is the largest of two known populations in Massachusetts; scientists estimate that there are 30 turtles living in this small area. Populations are also found in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania; and there is a similar turtle in southern states in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, which is also considered federally threatened. While the Bronx Zoo has managed to successfully breed the turtles in captivity, bog turtle colonies in the wild have declined by 80% in the last 30 years.
Scientists use radio telemetry to monitor the turtles in their habitat, keeping track of nesting areas and how far the turtles wander throughout the habitat. A small antenna is temporarily glued to shells of a portion of the population (currently 10 turtles in this habitat) and then scientists use a handheld antenna and radio to find them, each turtle linked to a specific frequency, usually buried deep in the mud. They take weight and shell measurements and also monitor the population for signs of disease.
The scientists say that the number of bog turtles in an area can indicate the general health of an ecosystem. Once an invasive plant was removed from the northern section of this habitat, the turtles started nesting there again. "When you have a good healthy robust bog turtle population," Angela Sirois-Pitel (at right, weighing a wild bog turtle), a Nature Conservancy Stewardship Manager who has been working with these turtles for the past 16 years, says, "you'll have a population of rare vegetation too. There are over 26 state-threatened and -endangered species here."
Julia Vineyard (below, holding antenna) is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has been studying the turtles as part of a cooperative internship with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Conservation's Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. She says that she's really gotten to know the turtle population. "We come out every single week. You know where they are. [Turtle number] 81 is always over there," she says, gesturing to some wet mud under a thick cover of grass and other plants.
Sirois-Pitel says that several threats have impacted bog turtles here and elsewhere in the country including changes to habitat hydrology, vegetation availability, and the way that road and housing development have fragmented and removed their habitat. Nevertheless, she says that she's noticed that their range is increasing at this site in Massachusetts. "Within the past few years we've found they're using more areas than we thought. The fact that they're spreading is hopeful."