It’s a big world for a little spotted turtle, with many dangers both natural and man-made. Raccoons and other predators like to eat it and its eggs, and humans often unwittingly destroy its home. BGSU researcher Hillary Harms is working to learn more about the species so its habitat can be protected from at least the man-made menaces.
A spotted turtle with antenna on its shell.
“I want to answer basic ecological questions that will allow me to make management recommendations that will be used locally,” said the fourth-year doctoral student in biology.
“Metroparks of Toledo is now consulting with her about their wetland restoration work in light of some of her research results, so we hope the project will have immediate and local impacts on wet prairie habitat in northwest Ohio,” said Dr. Karen Root, biological sciences, in whose lab Harms works. Harms has also collaborated with fellow doctoral student Timothy Schetter, who also works full time for the Metroparks in the land acquisition division. She has presented her work at several conferences, including an annual forum held at Oak Openings, and will do so again this year.
The spotted turtle, or Clemmys guttata, which is classified as protected in the majority of its range and threatened in Ohio, is only about five inches long. It needs areas that offer both open, wet prairie areas and dryer uplands in which to lay its eggs. “Ohio has lost about 90 percent of its original wetlands,” Harms pointed out, which makes it even more crucial to preserve remaining turtle habitat.
Harms has spent the better part of the last three years tracking the turtles in the Kitty Todd Nature Preserve in Swanton and at Bumpus Pond, part of property off Angola Road near Crissey recently acquired by the Metroparks. She is trying to “create a more complete picture of spotted turtle ecology applicable to the local range,” she said.
“Kitty Todd is really well managed and has been protected for a long time,” Harms said. “By contrast, my Bumpus Pond site has not been managed till now. Comparing how the turtles behave at both sites has enabled me to suggest management strategies and frequency of management.”
The population density at Kitty Todd is greater than might be expected in this, the central range of the turtles, which are found from Canada to the eastern coast of Florida and west to Illinois. “Their behavior varies by habitat, and the Ohio habitat is ‘suboptimal’ for the turtles,” said Harms, explaining that, as ectotherms, they depend on the outside temperature for their own internal thermostat.
On the trail of the spotted turtle
Over three field seasons, she has headed out in insulated waders, recording where she finds turtles, counting them and capturing them. She injects them with the same type of microchips used to identify family pets, epoxies an antenna transmitter to their shells (making sure to position them so as not to interfere with mating), and recently has also begun adding button-shaped temperature-data loggers.
“With the transmitters, we can go out year-round,” she said. When she returns to the sites, Harms uses a locator wand to pick up signals from the turtles. Even though she can locate them, especially when they sit basking on the grass tufts in the wetlands, the challenge is catching them when they dive back in the water. Excellent swimmers, “they’re very good at getting away,” she said humorously.
In the winter months, Harms looks for hibernaculas, where the turtles go to hibernate, sometimes in communal locations. Knowing where these are and what their characteristics are could help land managers know which areas to preserve and possibly give guidance in cultivating other, similar areas, she said.
“I'm also using GIS (geographic information systems) to look at the landscape within the Oak Openings region,” she noted. “By doing this, I can identify characteristics of the habitat spotted turtles are using and then look for other places like that within the area. I will be able to identify other areas that would be good spotted-turtle habitat and hopefully find additional spotted-turtle populations. I plan on going out to the sites predicted as habitat this spring to see if I can find spotted turtles.”
Harms is aided by undergraduate Rebecca Safron, a senior from Ridgeville in the department’s new ecology and conservation biology specialization, who assists with the field work and writes grant proposals. Rob Snyder, Harms’ husband, also helps.
The turtles are surprisingly hardy, considering the odds. Harms has tracked 60 or so, with about a 30 percent recapture rate, and “of those, at least half show some sort of injury or shell marking or are missing limbs,” she said.
In addition, “The spotted turtle must be 7-10 years old before it becomes reproductively mature,” she said, “and females only lay four eggs in a clutch once a year. Plus, not every female lays eggs every year.”
They also have “high site fidelity,” she said, which means they are very attached to their home turf. This was evidenced to her once when, after capturing a turtle and keeping it while the epoxy on its transmitter dried, she accidentally returned it to a different portion of the area where she had caught it. When she came back a few days later, she found the tiny creature had managed to get back to its original site.
“This has pros and cons,” she said. One negative is that they are “sensitive to fragmentation,” and where new roads have bisected their wetland and upland sites, their mortality rate is very high. They also do not move readily if their habitat becomes less supportive, she said.
With the information and new knowledge the study is generating, Harms hopes the turtles will be spared from having to confront some of these issues.