Saturday, 28 March 2015

Scientists try to help humble turtles stay afloat - via Herp Digest

By Darlena Cunha, Florida, Gainesville Sun, Correspondent
Published: Thursday, March 12, 2015 at 12:38 p.m.

In the spring and fall of each year, dozens of tiny turtles scramble through grass, around oaks and under fences in the Gainesville area, trying desperately to get to a waterway. Often, their path intersects with a street and cars slow down or move around them.
Sometimes, they are crushed into the asphalt.
Getting past the juvenile stage as a turtle is tough around here, but if they do, the creatures can have a lifespan of 30 years or more, according to Dr. Ken Dodd, courtesy associate professor of the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida.
But even adult turtles must survive a plethora of dangers to make it through each day.
“They’ve got a lot of things going against them. A lot of the babies are hit by cars, and the nests taken by predators,” said George Heinrich, a wildlife biologist, environmental educator and founder of Heinrich Ecological Services.
Add to that human development and trapping, and conservationists say the outlook of turtle survival becomes grimmer.
Jerry Johnston, a professor of biology at Santa Fe College, spends his days monitoring the turtle populations in the Santa Fe River and the springs, where they play an important ecological role. The Suwannee cooter, for example, eats the invasive plant species hydrilla, which (along with algae) becomes abundant when nitrate levels in the water increase and effectively ruins the springs as we know them today.
But turtles’ value extends beyond those specific waterways.
“Turtles play an important role in Gainesville’s food webs,” Johnston said. “Some species, like snapping turtles, are scavengers. They are the unsung heroes of populations, going around and keeping things clean. Other species are very important in seed dispersals to help create healthy plant populations.”
Gainesville has 13 native turtle species, according to Johnston. Within Alachua County, there are 15 different native turtle species, and all of them are helping to keep ecosystems in check by eating and being eaten, or simply by building their own homes.
“The gopher tortoises dig burrows for themselves, but when they move on, those tunnels provide homes for hundreds of other animal species,” Johnston explained.
Those burrows, however, face grave danger in the form of human construction and development.
“Developers want to build on high, dry ground, and that’s where the tortoises live,” said Heinrich. “These days, if you want to develop on a hatching ground, you have to relocate the turtles. You can’t just build over them. We used to allow people to just bury them alive.”
Heinrich said that while there are certain protections in place now for the turtles, many people ignore them. “Right now, there are fines if you do build on top of turtles, but the laws have to be enforced, and there has to be concrete evidence that it happened,” he said. “By the time the paperwork catches up, the turtles are gone.”
The scientists said residents trapping turtles is another large threat to the population. Whether turtles are getting caught in crab traps unintentionally or being purposefully hunted for food, many river turtles never make it out alive. And when they’re on land, it can be even worse.
“One of the major hazards for turtles is all these roads we have around here,” Johnston said. “Someone could pick up a turtle and take it home as a pet, or it gets run over.”
The scientists agree that if you see a turtle trying to cross the street, you should help it across, but only move it in the direction it was already going. Heinrich says many people make the mistake of taking a turtle and tossing it in the nearest pond, where it may or may not belong.
“Don’t try to think for the turtle,” Johnston said. “It knows what it’s doing.”
Dodd warned not to hold turtles too close to their heads or you could get bitten, and said always use extreme caution when moving them through traffic, as there have been human fatalities on the roads when do-gooders attempt to save turtles. Johnston also emphasized that there are multiple ways to help our important turtle population.
“Never take turtles home as pets. If you’re in a boat on a lake or a river, drive slowly. Don’t hit the turtles with your boat. It sounds like common sense, but I’ve seen hundreds of turtles horribly damaged by boats driving too fast.
“Don’t eat turtles. It is illegal to eat turtles. As much as possible, leave the turtles alone; they will figure out what to do. There are springs on the Santa Fe River that serve as nurseries for the turtles, so do whatever you can to preserve the springs.”
Johnston said his mission is to figure out how our turtles survive in a human-dominated landscape.
“Some do well, others not so much, but most people never give the turtles a second thought,” he said. “We’ve got something really special here that a lot of people take for granted.”

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