This is a bog turtle. As you can see, it’s minuscule (and undeniably adorable). And right now, these leathery, snappy little faces are crawling out of the muck to deposit teensy-weensy eggs onto tussocks of soft grass in some of the East Coast’s few remaining bogs. This time of year puts the turtles at increased risk of falling victim to predators and unscrupulous wildlife collectors. Worst of all, so few of these reptiles are left that every loss pushes the species a hair closer to extinction.
The bog turtle lives in just a few pockets between New York and northern Georgia, in colonies that number no more than 40 animals. While the species was once likely prominent throughout the East Coast, a turtle-less gap of some 400 miles (mostly in the Virginias) now divides the boggies into northern and southern populations. Nobody really knows how many of the reptiles remain, but each year their distribution seems to shrink, like the gloomiest game of musical chairs.
“It’s been a very sad change that we can’t seem to find the turtles where we knew they once existed,” says Holly Niederriter, a wildlife biologist with the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife. Niederriter and her colleagues know of fewer than 100 bog turtles in the state, though they haven’t been permitted to conduct surveys in all potential habitat areas.
The pet trade is one of the bog turtle’s biggest threats. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the turtle on the Endangered Species List in 1997, the agency said it was possible that more bog turtles were held illegally in captivity than remained in the wild. In fact, the bog turtle was so prized that year, suspected collectors burgled and de-turtled a locked exhibit at the Atlanta Zoo.
“I’ve heard estimates of people paying five to ten thousand dollars for a bog turtle,” says Niederriter. “I can’t quite wrap my mind around that.”
One thing bog turtles have going for them is that they are hard to find, and not just because they’re tiny. As their name suggests, they live in bogs—terrain not quite like the Bog of Eternal Stench, but not welcoming to humans either.
“The muck is so thick and viscous that it can suck your boots right off if you’re not careful,” says Niederriter. Worse still, she says, is when you step in the wrong place and sink down to your hips.
Bogs, unfortunately, have their own existential problem. For some 250 years, Americans have been on a mission to drain wetlands wherever they exist―first to make more room for farms and settlements, and today for things like big box stores.
The thing about bog turtles is they require a very specific kind of habitat. They need that thick muck to hide and hibernate in, but they also require ample sunshine for basking, tufts of grass for laying their eggs in, and some running water, but not so much as to make the area a true swamp. Really, the fen turtle might be a more appropriate name for this guy.
Housing developments, highways, and suburban sprawl paved over countless fens before we knew better. But even now that the bog turtle is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and its habitats protected, invasive plants are creeping in and remaking these lands in their own image. Purple loosestrife chokes out wetlands, sucking up all the water. (The loosestrife also grows so tall it might as well be a border wall for a bog turtle.) Multiflora rose and red maple are two other invasives bad for boggies, as they outcompete native species and throw literal shade on the places these turtles need to soak up the sun.
Sometimes, Niederriter says, native species can also be a problem. Left to its own devices, nature has a way of changing one habitat into another. Bogs become grasslands. Grasslands revert to shrubby fields. Fields give way to young forests, which eventually become mature forests. Then maybe a fire or a flood can rip through and reset the whole system.
As lovers of these “early successional habitats,” bog turtles would have historically left their bogs when they became overrun by tall grasses and shade-bearing trees. “And that was okay because new wetlands were being created nearby and they could easily move from one location to the other,” says Niederriter. “But that’s just not the case anymore.”
So we may have to find ways to put a pause on succession in the bog turtle habitat that remains. This can mean costly and time-consuming weeding and brush-removal campaigns, and sometimes even the use of heavy machinery and nasty chemicals like herbicides.
Or we could use cows. With four stomachs and a jaw built for gnashing greenery, Niederriter says, cattle can actually be a pretty good neighbor for bog turtles by chewing through unwanted vegetation, be it native or invasive. And their hooves help trample plants before they get too high for the turtles to crawl through. Maryland has even deployed goats because they are “woody vegetation specialists.”
In the end, bog turtles are now too patchily distributed for us to just hope that they’ll bounce back on their own. And that means their continued existence will likely rely on local, state, and federal agencies, as well as conservation organizations, buying up and managing habitats where they remain.
Let’s hope the day never comes when this species slips into extinction. If it does, we’ll have to ask ourselves how it was that we couldn’t find enough space for such a tiny turtle.
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