May 23rd is World Turtle Day, an opportunity to celebrate those animals that found a good plan and stuck with it for over 200 million years. The earliest turtles developed a protective shell and then rearranged their bodies to be able to swim, walk, and even run while encased in that shell. It’s a remarkably effective evolutionary feat, which is why they kept that basic body plan for millenia. The DFW Turtle and Tortoise Club celebrated the day at the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area (LLELA) hearing from box turtle researcher Sara van der Leek and her colleagues.
For me, there could hardly be a better choice, and I’ll freely admit my bias since these are my favorite turtles. They are beautiful, interesting, and everybody likes them. They also need help – wild populations of box turtles are in decline in lots of places in the U.S. Not many babies make it to adulthood, and then the adults are often run over on the highway or collected as pets. There are other threats, too, and so box turtles are in trouble.
As the LLELA folks described it, they started out with a small population of box turtles. In order for the turtles to find each other and breed, there must be reasonably high numbers of adults. If the numbers are too low, the population is sometimes described as “reproductively dead,” meaning that the long-lived adults are still seen at times but there are too few of them to produce enough babies for survival. To keep box turtles as a healthy part of LLELA’s wildlife, staff and volunteers worked along with Sara to do a couple of things. First, they attach a miniature radio transmitter to each box turtle above a certain size, so they can track the turtle down periodically and check on how it is doing and study its movements. Second, they raise and head-start baby box turtles that are released on the property when they grow to a certain size. If they were released as soon as they hatched, most of them would be eaten by predators, but if raised until their shells are harder and more protective, they have a better chance.
This all sounds like great fun, and when you hear Sara talk, you get the impression that it is very rewarding. However, it also involves pushing your way through the greenbrier and poison ivy and sometimes crawling through the woodland in search of a turtle’s radio signal. It’s a lot of work, and Sara and her team have earned our admiration and respect for the work that they do.
This relaxed and enjoyable conversation among Turtle & Tortoise Club members and LLELA folks happened as a result of planning and coordination by Barbara Dillard, who leads the club. Turtle people and “herp people” (those interested in reptiles and amphibians) used to form clubs and societies to share stories, organize activities, and provide information to each other. That has largely shifted from in-person groups to Internet social media, and the DFW Turtle and Tortoise Club made that shift, too. Barbara deserves credit for the fact that the club continues to function. The get-together on World Turtle Day was an opening invitation for turtle fans to be, at least sometimes, an in-person community. The pandemic made it too risky to be with each other face-to-face, but those risks are receding and now it’s time to remember how good it is to see and hear each other in real life. If we do it carefully, there is a lot to be gained. Being with each other, physically present, is the glue that holds human connections together. We have been a fragmented collection of individuals, holding some semblance of community together by staring at pixelated images and listening to computer audio. That’s how we got through the last fifteen months or so, but now if we can safely and carefully come together, we will be happier for it.
The meeting on the 23rd also shows how much the interests of turtle folks can include the science and natural history of wild turtles and the keeping (and sometimes breeding) of captive turtles. In the professional world, there is the study of turtle populations living in forests and savannas, prairies and wetlands, as well as zoo collections and conservation programs as well as the assurance colonies maintained by the Turtle Survival Alliance. In the hobbyist and amateur world there are days spent photographing wild turtles and posting observations on iNaturalist, and also people who keep red-footed tortoises in the back yard or mud turtles in indoor tanks. The discussion with LLELA folks helps keep the turtle hobby grounded in the fact that turtles are wild animals and that we all have a stake in the continued existence of healthy populations in wild places.
To help with that balance of interests, Meghan Cassidy worked with Barbara to create the DFW Turtle and Tortoise Club project on iNaturalist. “Projects” are collections of observations, either focusing on particular groups of species in certain geographic areas (like “Insects of Texas”) or the observations of an organization. This will be a great way for club members to share what they see in the wild with fellow members and with the scientific community.
One of the questions that came up was, “How can the average person help out with the box turtle work at LLELA?” It will not help (and oddly enough, would hurt) if we bring box turtles to LLELA and let them go. Volunteers can help out if they get the proper training from Sara. Mostly, we all need to remember that if we find a turtle somewhere, in most situations we should not pick it up and take it anywhere. When we see a native turtle, unless it is in a situation that is obviously not survivable, we should assume that it belongs where it is and knows where it is going. (It is good to help turtles when they are found crossing the road – more about that in another post.)
Thank you, Barbara and Meghan, and thanks Sara van der Leek, Hugh Franks (who raises the baby box turtles), and Scott Kiester with Friends of LLELA. Together, you made possible a beautiful World Turtle Day for a small, lucky group of people.