DO YOU FIND A PASCAGOULA SAWBACK?
July 24, 2011
had turned to a gentle drizzle when nature videographer Ian O'Briant asked,
"So is this what you recommend for a meaningful wildlife experience?"
We were sitting
in a small aluminum boat steadily bailing ankle-deep water from our craft.
With the help of distant lightning from another approaching storm we occasionally
caught a glimpse of each other's faces. We were on a long, lonely, uninhabited
section of the Leaf River in Mississippi. Our colleagues in the other
boat were disappearing from sight as they rounded a bend upstream, so
I started the outboard motor and told Ian I would answer him later.
of the Leaf River varies depending on time, place, and circumstance. Seen
from an aerial view on Google Earth, the river looks like a braided rope
in alternating black and white. The white sections are magnificent sandbars
where turtles lay their eggs. The dark sections are wooded cut banks where
swirling water carves away at cliffs formed by a rock known as soapstone,
in which talc is a primary ingredient. The water depth in the river ranges
from barely enough to cover your toes to deeper than an eight-foot dip
net held at arm's length.
River eventually merges with the Chickasawhay River to form the Pascagoula
River, which in turn flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Collectively they
have the distinction of being the only place in the world where the Pascagoula
map turtle lives; it dwells alongside another species known as the yellow-blotched
map turtle. Turtle biologists refer to both species as "sawbacks"
because of the jagged line of teethlike spines that run down the center
of the top shell. Both species are adapted to live in river systems with
fast currents that are not interrupted by dams.
As I had explained to Ian earlier, one way to enjoy nature is to select
a rare or unusual plant or animal species and set as a goal to see, hear,
or otherwise experience it. You can identify a target species as one you
want to catch and then release. A self-conducted scavenger hunt for a
specified quarry in a natural setting can be a totally gratifying experience.
for this trip had begun weeks earlier when my son suggested we take his
son to Mississippi to see if we could catch a Pascagoula sawback. The
species had been declared "critically endangered" by some authorities
but had not become officially protected, so we still had an opportunity
to catch-and-release. Mike Dorcas of Davidson College and his son, Zach,
joined us. We also invited Will Selman, a wildlife biologist with the
Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, to join us. Will had conducted
his doctoral work on Pascagoula River turtles and knew the system well.
A good guide can greatly enhance such an adventure.
common species in the river, the beautiful yellow-blotched sawback, is
on the federal endangered species list. The Pascagoula sawback, also a
gem of a turtle, is seen less often but is not protected. The night we
arrived we saw only the federally protected turtles, but we caught several
watersnakes and heard bird-voiced treefrogs.
a heavy fog that rolled across the river the next morning, Will was able
to use a stealth technique to swim slowly upstream and grab a Pascagoula
sawback that was basking on a log. Having achieved our goal of capturing,
photographing, and releasing what may soon become one of the rarest turtles
in America, we all relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the day looking at
snakes, wading birds, fish, numerous species of clams and mussels, and
other turtles. We did not see another person or a boat on the river until
we were leaving in late afternoon.
I never got
around to answering Ian's question about what I would recommend for a
meaningful wildlife experience. But I'm pretty sure that by the end of
the trip he had warmed to the idea that an outing on a wild southern river
just might be an excellent choice.
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