George Heinrich will go to great lengths, and depths, to draw attention to North America’s native turtles.
Even into an over-your-head blackwater bend in the Alapaha River.
Not that herp scientists like Heinrich apparently need much coaxing to explore the lair of any species they’re seeking. In late September, he and Georgia naturalist Dirk J. Stevenson tread tea-colored water in a deep slough of the south Georgia river, testing the sluggish current, temporarily avoiding the swarms of mosquitoes and probably toe-checking any available river bottom for a jagged shell that might reveal their targeted turtle: Macrochelys suwanniensis, the Suwannee alligator snapper.
Heinrich, of St. Petersburg, Fla., had driven to the Alapaha in hopes of finding the Suwannee gator snapper, one of the world’s largest freshwater turtles, plus an eastern mud and a chicken turtle.
It’s all part of the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust’s Big Turtle Year. Modeled after birding big years, Heinrich and Tim Walsh of Connecticut’s Bruce Museum are trying to see as many of the United States’ 59 turtle species (per a 2014 listing) as possible in 2017.
While about 58 percent of the world’s turtles are imperiled, attention is often focused on species not native to this continent. “The goal is to raise awareness about our U.S. species,” Heinrich said. For the rare and common, he added: “things like bog turtles and red-bellied cooters.”
The initiative has ranged from New Jersey to California and racked up 45 species as of early October. But two weeks ago, Heinrich needed a Suwannee snapper.
Georgia is home to both species of alligator snapping turtles: the Suwannee in the Suwannee River drainage and Macrochelys temminckii in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin. (In following the Turtle Taxonomy Working Group’s 2014 species list, the Big Turtle Year is also pursuing what was proposed then as a third species, the Apalachicola alligator snapper, Macrochelys apalachicolae. The group dismissed that turtle as a separate species this year.)
Alligator snappers look prehistoric, growing upward of 200 pounds and sporting ridge-creased shells, chunky heads and jaws that can snap a broomstick. Still recovering from commercial trapping that ravaged their populations before being outlawed in 1992, the protected species are a conservation priority in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan. The plan is a comprehensive, partnership-powered strategy focused on conserving the state’s native wildlife and the natural habitats they need before these animals, plants and places become rarer and more costly to conserve or restore.
On the Alapaha, Stevenson and Heinrich, helped by DNR senior wildlife biologist John Jensen, wildlife technician Andy Day and Orianne Society’s Ben Stegenga and Jonathon Bolton, checked large hoop traps baited with sardines and catfish filets and sunk into deep holes in the river.
The first day yielded the catch-and-release of a loggerhead musk turtle, yellow-bellied sliders and a hefty Florida softshell. A few gopher tortoises were spotted along dirt roads.
The next day, however, Stevenson and Heinrich hit pay dirt. One of the live traps bobbed with a 44-pound female gator snapper.
It wasn’t the Alapaha’s largest by far. But it was Heinrich’s first Suwannee snapper, and another notch in the year-long effort to turn public attention toward conserving America’s turtles.
Follow the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust’s Big Turtle Year.