By DIRK STEVENSON
As you know, southeastern Georgia is renowned for its impressive diversity of native turtles. From venerable landlubbers like box turtles and gopher tortoises to our varied freshwater types like stinkpots and snappers, softshells and cooters, a large number of different species inhabit our area.
Hands-down one of the most beautiful and engagingly-patterned species in Georgia is the aptly named spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata). A diminutive, bluish-black turtle, spotted turtles have small, yellowish spots on the upper shell (carapace) and orange/yellow spots on the head. Strikingly attractive, the spots and speckles appear to have been applied by an artist. The smooth shells of adult spotted turtles are but 3.5-4.5 inches long, thus fitting comfortably into the palm of one’s hand. I have come to think of these docile little turtles as the reptilian version of a soothing stone.
Specimens of the somewhat-similar-in-appearance, but more terrestrial, eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) may have handsome yellow colors, but this species lacks discrete spots and is considerably larger. Additionally, the lower shell (plastron) of box turtles possesses a hinge allowing this species to fully close its shell; spotted turtles lack a hinge and cannot do so. “Spotties” also have smaller, flatter and stream-lined shells compared to the high, dome-shaped carapace of box turtles, a familiar backyard turtle that may grow to the size of a huge softball.
Historically, their pleasing characteristics have resulted in the over-collection of spotted turtles for the pet trade in some regions, and illegal collection remains a threat. According to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), an estimated 1,000 spotted turtles are exported yearly from the U.S. and the species has experienced a 50-percent decline in three generations. In 2012, the species was petitioned by the Center for Biological Diversity for listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Many populations have disappeared due to habitat loss and adverse impacts to wetlands, and spotted turtles are protected from collection in most of the states in which it occurs, including Georgia.
In our state, spotted turtles occur in a variety of freshwater wetlands including marshes, river swamps, bogs and vernal ponds. Clean, slow-moving or still-water habitats are required to support turtle populations. Spotted turtle sites are typically vegetated with aquatic plants and have soft, mucky substrates. Late winter to spring is the peak period of spotted turtle activity. The turtles feed heavily at this time – in water as cool as 40 degrees Fahrenheit! –and congregate to breed. When foraging, this omnivorous turtle prefers shallow water about 2 feet or less in depth.
Spotted turtles reach sexual maturity at around 8-12 years of age and commonly live to ages of 20-30 or more years in the wild. Herpetologist and spotted turtle expert Dr. Jacqueline Litzgus estimated that some individuals in her Ontario, Canada, population may live to be 65-110 years old! Delayed sexual maturity and a low reproductive potential are traits characteristic of species that experience high annual survivorship of adults.
In 2013, The Orianne Society, a Georgia-based nonprofit focused on conserving reptiles and amphibians in the wild, launched mark-recapture studies of spotted turtles at three conservation lands in southern Georgia. Recapturing a handsome spotted turtle that you haven’t seen in two years is a great feeling, the equivalent of bumping into a long-lost friend. Our work in the field will help decipher many aspects of this species’ life history and ecology in a region where it has been little studied, and we are eager to learn more.
According to John Jensen, herpetologist and a senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the spotted turtle is “among Georgia’s most poorly known species, with the vast majority of occurrence records obtained from observations on roads.”
“Surveys and monitoring of this secretive species by The Orianne Society will shed valuable light on the conservation status of the species in the state – which is information coveted by Georgia DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Jensen said.
If you have observed a spotted turtle in Georgia, please e-mail a photograph of the turtle (if possible), the date of your observation and specifics detailing the location (e.g., GPS latitude and longitude) to Jensen at email@example.com.
Dirk Stevenson is an Orianne Society wildlife biologist and a well-known Georgia naturalist. His blog The Naturalist is at www.oriannesociety.org.