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Levin: Spotted Turtles

Of the nearly 330 species of turtles, none is more beautiful than the spotted turtle - itinerant visitor to vernal pools, flooded meadows, swamps, and clear, slow-moving streams. But most likely you’ve never seen one because Vermont has three separate populations. They’re as dark as obsidian with bright yellow spots on the black upper shell, neck, and head, in distinct patterns used by biologists to identify individual turtles.For five days this spring, Hanover High School environmental science teacher Jeannie Kornfeld and I escorted twelve students into the wilds of southeastern Georgia. We were part of the school’s innovative March Intensive and guests of Chris Jenkins, C.E.O. of the Orianne Society, a nonprofit devoted to the conservation of imperiled reptiles and amphibians. The society manages more than 48,000 acres of pine flatwoods and runs critical projects throughout the Southeast and elsewhere, including spotted turtle demography in a longleaf pine forest.

Females spotted turtles may live up to 110 - but like their human counterparts, males fade away sooner; few would live long enough to draw turtle social security - if such a thing existed.

Spotted turtles are gregarious, wandering overland up to a mile each year to exploit temporary feeding bonanzas, to breed, to snooze away the summer heat under a blanket of leaves, and to return en mass to hibernate in flooded swamps in a speckled pile.

In the suburban garage of Orianne biologist Dirk Stevenson, the students weighed, measured, and sexed five spotted turtles, noted cracks, chips, scratches, or predatory tooth marks in their shells, and then under Dirk’s supervision filed indelible notches in the margin along both sides of the upper shell, assigning a unique number to each turtle, which enables biologists to compile growth and movement data whenever a marked turtle is recaptured.

Spotted turtles range on the coastal plain from southern Maine to northern Florida and on the Great Lakes Plain to northeastern Illinois. Like their name, they have a rather spotty distribution, particularly in Vermont, where one colony is found in the southeast, another in the southwest, and the third in the west central part of the state. Steve Parren, who monitors all three, believes beaver once maintained an interconnected matrix of wetlands in the Northeast, which allowed turtles to colonize the Champlain and Connecticut valleys.

Besides the disappearance of wetlands, spotted turtles face another threat. I recently found one for sale online for five hundred dollars plus - which is why I’m not willing to say exactly where they live.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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