Canadian researchers put secretive turtle on risk radar

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Eastern musk turtle. Image: Julia Rutledge

By Quinn Zimmerman

The eastern musk turtle is easily overlooked. It basks in vegetation near the water’s surface.

That makes it hard to see.

Unfortunately for the turtles, this also means they are easily overlooked for protection.

A recent study by Canada’s McMaster University sheds new light on the status and protection needs of this secretive species in Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay.

The main threats to the turtles are recreational boating, development and loss of shoreline habitat and fisheries by-catch, according to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

The study concluded that development and habitat loss are among the main threats in the Georgian Bay area. Eastern musk turtles are more likely to occupy coastal wetlands with greater amounts of forest cover and lower densities of docks, cottages and roads, the study concluded.

“Anthropogenic influences, specifically shoreline modifications, have a very negative influence on the turtles,” said, Julia Rutledge, co-author of the study.

“Regulating that type of development within a certain range of the wetlands would have a positive influence on the longevity of the species.”

The turtle is limited to eastern North America, from Florida to southern Ontario. Its range includes parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Eastern musk turtles have been down listed from threatened status to one of special concern on federal lands by Canada in 2012 and more broadly by the province of Ontario in 2014.

There’s a big difference between the status of special concern and threatened, said Marie-Ange Gravel, manager of Species at Risk listing and permitting with the federal Canadian Wildlife Service.

Eastern musk turtle. Image: James Harding, Michigan State University

Threatened species benefit from immediate protection for their residences and protection from being harmed, killed or having their habitat degraded, Gravel said. The federal agency will also commit to developing a recovery strategy for the species’ restoration.

“We (a committee of federal regulators) make the decision to list or delist a species as threatened based on information from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, an independent scientific body,” Gravel said.

The committee making the decision also considers socioeconomic implications and consults stakeholders who may be affected by the decision, Gravel said.

Species officially listed as threatened or endangered receive more protection and funding than those listed as special concern, said Chantel Markle, the other co-author of the study.

“Because the eastern musk turtles are listed as special concern, they do not receive automatic protection by the government of Ontario,” Markle said.

That means that the species is at a greater risk of habitat loss and decline, she said. “There are definitely still development threats occurring along the coast of the Georgian Bay”.

“They should be listed as threatened due to their potential to become endangered from habitat loss,” said Ronald Brooks, chair of the Ontario Multi-Species Turtles at Risk Recovery Team.

Brooks, the former chair of a federal committee on the protection of amphibians and reptiles, is dissatisfied with Canada’s 2012 assessment of this turtle as special concern.

“I think it is more at risk than we thought it was,” he said.

“It was hard to make a strong argument without enough data,” he said. And the agency emphasized that the turtles are hard to find rather than declining.

“But they are easy to find once you know how to look for them, and when you look for them in southern Ontario they are just not there,” he said.

According to the federal assessment, “In southwestern Ontario, the species has declined substantially and is now restricted to a few tiny, scattered populations…Since the previous assessment in 2002, the species distribution range remains unchanged, but losses in the southern half of its range make it near threatened”.

“Being listed as threatened would make a big difference,” Brooks said.

Prior to this study, little research had been done to quantify the direct impact of development on the species. This was due to the turtles’ 3- to 5-inch size, secretive nature and broad dispersal, Markle said.

Though the committee reassesses species at risk every 10 years, the process can be expedited with new information, Gravel said.

Rutledge and Markle hope that their study provides the data that could put the tiny turtles back on the radar.

This story was updated 12/17/18 to correct the first name of one of the study’s authors.

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