“Where Did the Turtles Go?”: How One Case Study Brings Perspective On How Endangered Species Populations Are Studied

Primary Source: McKnight, D. T., Hollender, E. C., & Ligon, D. B. (2022). Where are the turtles? Looking for the Western Chicken Turtle, Deirochelys reticularia miaria, in Mississippi. Herpetology Notes, 15, 609–613. https://www.biotaxa.org/hn/article/view/74693

With global climate change putting stress on the world’s various ecosystems, more and more species around the globe are at risk of becoming endangered or even extinct in the wild. Furthermore, while domestic populations of some species may be held until conditions improve, this is not feasible for many species, and comes with its own unique problems for the species that can be maintained domestically, such as a decreased genetic pool and risks of inbreeding. With these growing issues in mind, awareness of how scientists go about studying wild populations, and the unique difficulties that doing so entails, is crucial to develop more accurate understandings of the needs of at-risk wildlife populations.

While the Chicken Turtle has been considered a single species, the Mississippi River separates the eastern and western populations for the most part. This has led to two distinct and unique subspecies developing. Credit: “Mouth of the Mississippi” by Adventures of KM&G-Morris, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The Most Chicken Turtle This Side of Mississippi

An example of one such study is the recent research of McKnight, Hollender, and Ligon in their search for Western Chicken Turtles along within their historic range in Mississippi. Due to debate on the taxonomy of the Chicken Turtle, and the potential divide between the East and West populations, previous data on the endangerment status of both sub-species has come into question. To assess the condition of the Western Chicken Turtle, McKnight and their collaborators used various modern trapping techniques to find any turtles at locations in Mississippi previously noted in research from the 1930’s and late 1960’s. As there was historically less concern over the monitoring of what was presumed to be a singular species, literature on the monitoring of the Chicken Turtle is relatively inconsistent over time, leaving modern researchers with little resources to estimate the Western Chicken Turtle’s current range. As such, the researchers set up various sites around the areas listed in previous studies and set up various types of traps fitting the environment at each site. As these turtles spend most of their time in water or near water, traps meant for use in water as well as partial submersion in water were used. These trapping methods were previously shown to be effective in modern monitoring efforts made in other parts of the Western Chicken Turtle’s range.

Shell-Shocking Results

Despite the difficulties with past literature, the researchers managed to set up suitable sampling sites at private properties and national wildlife refuges throughout Mississippi. Curiously, the results of this sampling effort yielded not even a single Western Chicken Turtle. While Mississippi is fairly removed from most of the Western Chicken Turtle’s range, finding no individuals throughout locations where they were previously present is too drastic to be accepted at face-value. As such, the study investigated potential causes for this discrepancy between modern findings and historic data. In doing so, they noticed qualitative differences between the historic literature and their own experiences at the sampling sites.

Many private properties noted in previous studies had previously been developed for catfish farming, whereas current private properties have been developed for agricultural farming. With this difference in land use, it was clear that, despite the presence of some water sources, these same lands were no longer suitable enough for these turtle’s aquatic needs such that it would be able to compete with other local species for the dwindling resource.

As for the sampling sites that were not located on private property, and were instead located on national wildlife refuges, the researchers found that many traps had been moved or destroyed by alligators, which thrived in these locations due to lack of human intervention. Even if these traps were not destroyed or moved, the heavy presence of alligators would suggest that these locations would be too dangerous for the Western Chicken Turtle.

Compared to other species of turtles, the shell of the Chicken Turtle is relatively thin, making them easier prey for predators such as alligators. Credit: “Endangered Chicken Turtle” by Virginia State Parks staff, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Takeaways From Turtles

At all locations within the previously recorded range of the Western Chicken Turtle, both private and public, unique issues relating to the human interference, or lack thereof, provided another layer of complexity to the estimation of the species’ current range and endangerment status. Private property lacked the predatory issues of alligators, as human activities in these areas prevents them from living there in large numbers. However, as land usage in these areas has changed over time, the land itself is no longer suitable to the primarily aquatic lifestyle of the Western Chicken Turtle. National Wildlife Refuges, while promising, suffer from the lack of people. Without human presence to inhibit the actions of alligators, the Western Chicken Turtle lacks the safety needed to establish a strong population. These unique issues show that monitoring of at-risk species is more than a simple numbers game. Seemingly innocuous changes over time can quickly create problems for local wildlife. As climate change drastically alters the environment around the world, careful and consistent monitoring of local wildlife, like this study, is more important than ever.

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Cypress Novick

Cypress Novick

I am a recent graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, where I studied for my Bachelor's in Biology. My main research interests are wetlands ecology, mycology, estuary ecosystem interactions, and plant-based trophic interactions. I have always been passionate about making science more available and understandable, and am always trying to improve my writing so I may help myself and others be better understood.

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