North America’s smallest tortoise has crawled into a swamp a bit, and the federal government is considering whether species protection is warranted to get it out.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans last month to begin reviewing the status of the rare southern population of the rare bog turtle — last seen two decades ago in South Carolina — after receiving petitions to include the animals in protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Populations in South Carolina, mostly associated with the Northern Territory, have received government protection for years, making it illegal for people to collect animals or keep them in their possession without a permit.
Federal protection could mean more rules to avoid taking species and issuing permits for prohibited activities. The Fish and Wildlife Service can also implement species recovery plans, if needed.
Spore turtles live in a rare wetland called the southern Appalachian swamps. But limited availability and loss of mountain swamp habitats due to drainage, conversion to other uses, and degradation constantly threaten the species.
In South Carolina, bog turtles have been known to live north of the Greenville area. It has been nearly 20 years since the state Department of Natural Resources last recorded turtles.
“The records we have are of individuals found dead on or crossing a road, and a lot of that has to do with habitat loss,” said state herpetologist Andrew Gross.
Gross said rare species that are small and stay small, such as the bog turtle, are highly collectible and fetch quite a bit of money.
Adult bog turtles can grow to be about the size of a hatchling sea turtle and have shells up to 4 inches long. They are known for their yellow and orange cheek spots.
Poaching threats to the illegal turtle trade are one reason why northern populations were first listed in 1997 as threatened.
“I don’t know how easy it will be to find them for sale anymore because of how protective they are and how small their population is,” said Gross. “But I do know that, historically, they have been in great demand and have brought in quite a bit of money overseas in the various pet trades.”
Swamp turtles preferred swampy areas of South Carolina that were either spring fed or headwaters because of the open and deep mud they provided.
This habitat is important for two reasons. The animals spend a lot of time buried in the mud, and swampy areas usually have an open canopy without many trees. Besides, they provide small wetland-type plants and grasses that animals use to hide under when traveling.
But often, with the natural process of forest, trees start to overgrow and shade swampy areas. This leads to the loss of the bottom, which the turtles rely on, Gross said.
Biologists have also noted that in some areas, the animal’s preferred habitat has been converted into reservoirs or small ponds due to a constant water source nearby. Bog turtles are not swimming turtles, so they cannot thrive in that environment.
Their overlooked role is seed dispersal. They travel across the land to take nutrients from wetland areas to more terrestrial habitats, and vice versa. On a larger scale, animals provide food for different species.
DNR is surveying and trying to find bog turtles in the state. If there’s good habitat still in South Carolina, Gross said, it’s likely to be on private land.
People can email DNR at email@example.com to share information about the species and to alert biologists if they believe their property includes suitable habitat for bog turtles. Gross said the agency is always ready to follow up on potential clients and visit properties.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said the bog turtle’s southern population could warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act. The service will assess potential threats to the species during a 12-month status review.
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