TURTLES HAVE MANY MEANINGS
read a Miami Herald article about a new form of graffiti - painting
wild gopher tortoises, native land turtles that get bigger than volleyballs.
The article referred to a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
report about recovering gopher tortoises with their shell entirely covered
in colorful paint.
is that the perpetrators meant no harm, but this form of environmental
vandalism is unacceptable. In Florida, according to the FFWCC, "It
is against the law to ... harass ... gopher tortoises." A tortoise
having its shell painted as part of a whimsical art project would indeed
has reason for concern. Any turtle with paint all over its shell loses
its camouflage potential, both on land and in water. Also, toxic ingredients
might be absorbed or the reptile may lose its ability to regulate its
remember the abomination of baby turtles being sold with palm trees,
flowers and other images painted on their shells before it became illegal
to sell small turtles in 1975. Most of these almost certainly died.
other hand, painting turtles has been an ecological research technique
for decades. I painted my first turtle in Michigan in 1964 during a
scientific study on turtle populations. The animal was a common painted
turtle, one of the most widespread and abundant turtles in the country.
They get their name from the beautiful yellow and red stripes on the
legs and head and the bright red markings on the margin of the shell.
I added to this one's natural splendor with three letters, AEG, painted
with white enamel on the shiny black shell.
released AEG into the clear water of the lake, I could still read the
ID when the turtle finally disappeared into the bottom muck 4 feet below.
I subsequently identified this turtle and several others with different
paint IDs later in the year. I was even able to use binoculars and read
the ID on basking turtles more than 100 feet away. Thus, a simple coding
system allowed me to determine the whereabouts of turtles I had captured
in the study area without having to recapture them.
small inconspicuous marks on animals for identification continues to
be used by many research ecologists. Having a number painted on it for
ready identification is unlikely to be a problem for most adult turtles.
Any small risk to survival from a bit of paint is often outweighed by
the value of finding out more about the natural history of turtles.
and I put small numbers on slider turtles and box turtles we catch so
that we know when we catch the same one again. But rather than carry
a paint can and brush, we use nontoxic paint pens available at most
polish is also a simple way to give a turtle an ID. Sharpies and black
magic markers also work for temporarily marking turtles that are light-colored
underneath. Finding a turtle and recognizing it the next time you catch
it can be a gratifying experience, especially for kids.
turtles in Michigan do not retain the numbers because in the fall they
shed thin, cuticle-like plates called scutes that cover the bony shell.
Scutes with numbers on them are jettisoned along with the rest. All
turtles, including gopher tortoises, shed the plates on their shell,
although they and many other turtles do not do so on such a regular
basis. But presumably the tortoises in Florida that have become funky
art palettes will eventually return to their natural coloration - if
they live long enough.
that painting the shells of tortoises or other turtles will become an
American pastime that warrants attention as a major wildlife agency
problem. However, painting small numbers on a turtle's shell for a research
project or simply to know if you find it again can be a rewarding exercise.
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