Bog Turtles and Tussocks

Bog Turtles can be found in the eastern U.S. from Georgia to New York, not that one is easy to find. Surveys by trained biologists often come up empty. It has become a very rare species with population declines estimated around 90% over the last century. Still, the first observation of a Bog Turtle on was by someone who found it in the mouth of a dog - and he rescued it! (see his photo below).

rescued bog turtle

Like many federally-listed species, these turtles are well studied and yet the need to conduct surveys for them remains critical to their conservation. Population monitoring and new occurrence records would be two reasons for initiating surveys.  Thus, private landowners can play a major role by either regularly monitoring their property or hiring a biologist to conduct a survey. Important note!—Bog Turtles have declined in part due to illegal collecting for the black market pet trade. Be wary of these unlawful collectors. The loss of even one or two individuals from a population could lead that local population to extinction.

bog turtle habitat

The major reason for their decline is loss of habitat. They favor wetland habitats that are not very stable (ephemeral), meaning they like wetlands that tend to fill in with shrubs and trees naturally. Historically, when one wetland filled in they could move to another early successional wetland habitat, now...well that is history, and fragmentation and fewer wetlands is present reality. Picture a beaver dam flooding, a large one, all those wet areas away from the main water channel would make good Bog Turtle habitat. They require the open canopy conditions for their thermoregulation, reproduction, and feeding needs (habitat photo from USFWS).

Another way that private landowners can be vital to conserving Bog Turtles is through active habitat restoration or protection! Invasive plant infestations are a major threat to their habitat as they speed up the natural succession process and eliminate plant species critical to the turtle’s lifestyle, such as sedges that grow up in mounds or “tussocks” where they like to lay their eggs. If your property contains open marsh areas and/or a small weedy seep or stream it may be providing Bog Turtle habitat. For those of us who don’t live in the Bog Turtle range (see map from Recovery Plan, see citation below), maintaining these ephemeral communities will provide habitat for other unique creatures.  

bog turtle range map

Maintaining open or scattered shrubby areas will require active management. Those invasive species will need to be managed by detecting them as they arrive and with treatment, usually using herbicides. Other active management tools include grazing animals with careful planning as to allow just enough grazing to keep succession at bay. Controlled burning and tree girdling are other tools that can be effective but require careful planning and expertise. Contact a biological consultant to help with these technical tasks.

There are some actions that you could take on your own. They may or may not be easy, depending on your neighbors. Looking beyond your property and considering the larger landscape, is your habitat part of a larger continuous habitat system? Maybe the wetland doesn’t continue, but is there adjoining natural cover that would allow a turtle a safe passage through? Could you talk with your neighbors to coordinate protection efforts, encouraging them to plan any development of their land in a manner that preserves natural corridors? Maybe you could join with other neighbors in contacting the Fish and Wildlife Service to ask for assistance with the cost of restoring degraded habitat? Or are excessive nutrients (fertilized lawn) or sediments (from some nearby erosion) washing into the wetland? If so, these would speed up natural selection and the end your tussock filled, wetland. 

Read more about Bog Turtle biology and what I’ve discussed here in Bog Turtle Slipping Away by Andrew L. Shiels. Pennsylvania Boater and Angler, PA Fish and Boat Commission.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2001. Bog Turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii), Northern Population, Recovery Plan. Hadley, Massachusetts. 103 pp.

van Dijk, P.P. 2013.Glyptemys muhlenbergii. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2013: e.T4967A11103317. Downloaded on06 January 2016.

Thanks to the USFWS for the cover photo and this one!

bog turtle