THE BIG TURTLE YEAR IS NEARLY OVER

by Whit Gibbons

December 3, 2017

When George Heinrich pulled up the trap and announced that a turtle was inside, we were both ecstatic. I knew it had to be a tiny one as the funnel opening into the minnow trap was only an inch wide. When we saw the little stinkpot musk turtle peeking its black head with four yellow stripes from beneath a leaf, you would think from our excitement we had landed a 100-pound alligator snapper. We had been searching for reptiles and amphibians for three days and had caught four snakes and dozens of salamanders. This was our first turtle.

When George stopped by for a visit, he was on the last leg of a quest to complete the Big Turtle Year. The program, sponsored by the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust, is designed to raise awareness about the “rich diversity, ecology, and conservation needs of turtle species found in the United States.” Like so many other native wildlife groups, turtles can use all the attention and support they can get.

The U.S. is home to about 60 species of turtles. Most turtle biologists these days consider the actual number of native ones to be 59, although some quibble over whether certain ones are really a single species or should be recognized as two. But all agree we have lots of different kinds of turtles. Most are in the Southeast. Alabama and Mississippi share the record with 30 each. Regrettably, population numbers for many of these species are declining because of various environmental threats. Bringing attention to the animals themselves – which is what George Heinrich’s Big Turtle Year is intended to do – is the first step toward conservation solutions.

The Big Turtle Year is fashioned after the highly successful Big Year. Initiated in the 1930s by ornithologists, it has become highly competitive. The goal is to see how many different kinds of birds can be found in a specific area over a given time period. George and the organizers of the turtle program “strongly encourage others to see how many turtle species they can locate in their state or geographic region during a single calendar year.” Birds and turtles have little in common superficially, but the Big Turtle Year and its avian counterpart strive to achieve conservation goals for both groups of animals. The intent is to make the public aware of the presence and ecological importance of our native wildlife and both focus on a distinct component of our natural heritage.

Some turtles are indigenous only to certain regions across the country and special effort is required to locate them in the wild. For example, the flattened musk turtle, which is protected by the Endangered Species Act, is found only in central Alabama. Finding desert tortoises entails a trip to the Southwest. Blanding’s turtles are restricted mostly to the Midwest and Northeast. On his quest to find as many U.S. turtles as possible, George’s travels took him on field trips from Florida to Texas, New England to California, the Carolinas to Michigan. Each trip lasted a week to 10 days. Because he had to travel to different regions to find certain species, his strategy was to “maximize species diversity at the fewest locations possible to reduce costs.” Clearly, dedication and enthusiasm are key ingredients for taking on such an adventure.

Catching a baby stinkpot turtle did not add to George Heinrich’s list because he had already caught one earlier in his travels. However, we challenged the record for the smallest turtle he found. During his yearlong adventure he located 54 different species of U.S. turtles. His excitement at finding turtles has not diminished over time, and I was glad to be part of his search. Consider participating in a Big Turtle Year of your own. You needn’t crisscross the country like George did – but if you get caught up in the challenge, who knows where the hunt will take you.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)

 

 
SREL HomeUGA Home