A Shell in the Haystack: A Mission for an Endangered Turtle in the Northwoods

by Greg LeClair

The intricate markings on a Wood Turtle. Greg LeClair photo.

“WOOD TURTLE WOOD TURTLE WOOD TURTLE!” rang through the air like gunfire. We sprang into action to capture the first-in-decades Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) in our study area in New England.

This moment, a year in the making, was a big production for a turtle no larger than your average novel. In 2015, a small taskforce of students and professors from my school, Unity College, were trained by the state wildlife agency in how to locate the Wood Turtle, a species in decline throughout its range. This contigent would become my search team. While north of 30 people have participated on this crew, this day’s party consisted of a three man team: Chris, a bearded Captive Wildlife Care major who brims with sarcasm; Trina, a loud-laughing Wildlife Biology major and recreational mixologist who designs drinks based on the animals she’s worked with; and myself, a dorky kid with a mess of hair just recovering from a case of intestinal roundworm, acquired somewhere between stumbling and accidentally inhaling a mouthful of bayou water and chasing down armadillos in coastal Mississippi.

Though it is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Wood Turtle not listed as such in the U.S.; neither federally nor in the state. But, due to a growing pile of anecdotal and scientific evidence and a lawsuit, this status was under review, and my crew was to become part of reassessing this turtle.

Wood Turtles are perhaps the most interesting turtle we have on North America’s East Coast. They are bright orange with shells that look as though they are designed by pottery masters with eyes that contrast black sclera with golden irises. They are also a highly intelligent reptile with significant spatial understanding; when displaced kilometers away from their homes, they are able to navigate back successfully and will beat a rat in navigating mazes. Some even report Wood Turtles adaptively camouflaging themselves as they come on land, kicking the substrate onto their shells to hide their noticeable geometric contours. At least in my experience, they may even be able to recognize people.

An example of the beautiful shapes and contours of the Wood Turtle’s shell. Greg Leclair photo.

It’s these very reasons that make the Wood Turtle a threatened species. The pet trade on reptiles is not a kind affair; money and wildlife mix poorly. Entire regions have lost Wood Turtles due to collectors; on the black market, Wood Turtles can go for up to $3000 USD.  If that’s not enough, Wood Turtles are sensitive to human encroachment and habitat destruction, are frequent victims of nest predation and roadkill, and take 11-20 years to reach breeding maturity. This species faces some big problems, so we need to find and learn about them as much as we can.

Frustratingly, these turtles are hard to find. In the warmer months they occupy terrestrial habitats (the specific requirements of which were not well known at the time), and are impossible to find without a transmitter attached. The cooler months, though, bring them to the water, so spring and fall provide the best time to conduct searches as they’re limited to their streams. These streams would become my team’s patrol routes as we searched for the Wood Turtle.

A year and many dozens of kilometers after we began our search, we finally got one.

It’s not hard to imagine how a Wood Turtle can hide so easily in places like this. Greg Leclair photo.

With Chris still shouting “WOOD TURTLE,” I jumped, landed short of the stream, and hit the steep, slippery bank. Covered in mud and rocketing down the slope like a bobsled, my feet finally hit the water.

I was the only one in my team that day who had a pair of waders on, which should keep one dry up to about chest level, but that was about to not matter. The turtle, spotted by Chris in a shallow sandy spot, started hustling to a deep corner with downed trees throughout it. A miscalculation of my mud-bank-bobsled stunt sent me from land-missile to torpedo. I was soaked, but the adrenaline was so high I didn’t notice how cold the early May stream water was. My dynamic action, though, clouded the water with sediment and glare from sunlight passing through the canopy above made it impossible to see a turtle while chest deep in the stream.

Once righted, Chris and Trina shouted orders to me from the vantage point of the stream bank, guiding me to the turtle’s last known location with some NASA-esque appeal; eventually, my foot to nudged what felt like a rock the size of your average novel.

I have never so carefully used my foot to scoop and lift an object. Thankfully, Wood Turtles are awful at escapes. I was able to pick him up with the toe of my boot into shallower water, where I laid hands on the first Wood Turtle seen in the area since the mid-80’s. I was stoked–and soaked– as I was essentially swimming in my waders.

Once I brought the turtle to land, we ran through a checklist of data to be collected. Finding a turtle like this is a rare occurrence and so little is known that we must take full advantage of the situation: five different shell measurements, age approximation by counting the number of rings on the shell, GPS points, and in some cases collection of tissue or blood. Every turtle captured also receives a unique shell marking so that in the event we find it again, we know how far it has moved, how it has grown, and maybe who it hangs around. Some also receive radio transmitters stuck on with plumbing epoxy putty to let us track them throughout the warmer months of the year to determine habitat preferences, which remain largely unknown and may lead us to more turtles.

Since that day, we have discovered 21 more adult turtles, as well as a silver-dollar sized hatchling and a nest with four eggs. With some number crunching we can determine that this population is still in deep trouble (likely disappearing in less than 100 years), but I hope that with our findings we can get the Wood Turtle story out there and save this species before they’re gone. This can be hard to do sometimes since reptiles and amphibians aren’t as attractive as birds or mammals, but it’s hard to say no to such a charismatic and personable little orange turtle.

The author triumphantly hoisting the day’s prize. Christopher McGovern photo.

Greg LeClair was born and raised in Maine, USA, where he currently is wrapping up his undergraduate studies at Unity College. While he has an active interest in all taxa, he found himself sucked into the world of herpetology (reptiles and amphibians) early in his college career, and considers this one of his specialties. Greg has worked in the professional sphere with reptiles and amphibians across New England and the Gulf Coast, which has brought him to work with some of the most endangered species in the world, like the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle and the Dusky Gopher Frog. Besides herpetology, he has also worked with Black Bear, White-tailed Deer, Canada Geese, and researched owl calling behavior.

In his spare time, Greg plays didgeridoo, banjo, and bass guitar and occasionally finds the time to draw. He runs a conservation-focused YouTube channel GregmentsBio, develops and delivers nature education lessons at local schools, and utilizes photography to tell stories of endangered species. He is currently planning on pursuing a master’s degree in Conservation Biology studying turtle conservation.

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