North America’s smallest sea turtle has crawled into a swamp and the federal government is considering whether protections are necessary to rescue the species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last month that it plans to conduct a status review of populations of the southern rare marsh turtle after receiving a petition to list the animals under the Endangered Species Act — last seen in 20 years ago in South Carolina.
South Carolina, whose population is mostly connected to the upstate, has been under state protection for many years, making it illegal for people to collect or possess the animals without a permit.
Federal protections could mean more rules to avoid taking the species and issuing permits for prohibited activities. The Fish and Wildlife Service can also implement a recovery plan for the species, if necessary.
Marsh turtles live in rare wetlands known as southern Appalachian swamps. But limited availability and loss of these mountain swamp habitats through drainage, conversion to other uses and degradation continue to threaten the species.
In South Carolina, marsh turtles live in the northern Greenville area. It’s been nearly 20 years since the state’s Department of Natural Resources last recorded sea turtles.
“The records that we do have are of individuals who died on the road or crossed the road, and a lot of them are related to habitat loss,” said state herpetologist Andrew Grosse.
Rare species like the marsh turtle, which are smaller and stay smaller, are highly collectible and can bring in considerable income, Grosse said.
Adult swamp turtles can grow to be about the size of hatchlings, with shells up to 4.5 inches long. They are known for their yellow-orange cheek spots.
The threat of poaching due to the illegal sea turtle trade was one of the reasons the northern population was first listed as a threatened species in 1997.
“I don’t know how easy it is to find them for sale because they’re so protected and they’re such a small population,” Grosse said. “But I do know that historically there’s been a high demand for them.” , they bring a considerable amount of money overseas in different pet deals.”
Marsh tortoises prefer South Carolina marsh areas that have either springs or the headwaters of streams because they provide open, deep mud.
This habitat is important for two reasons. The animals spend most of their time buried in the mud, and swampy areas often have an open canopy without many trees. Among other things, they provide small wetland plants and grassy areas that animals use to hide when they travel.
But many times, as a natural process of the forest, trees start to grow and cause the swamp to shade. This, Grosse said, has led to the loss of the understory vegetation that the turtles depend on.
Biologists have also noticed that in some areas, the animals’ preferred habitats have been converted into cisterns or small ponds due to the constant availability of water nearby. Marsh turtles are not swimming turtles, so they cannot thrive in that environment.
Their neglected role is to disperse seeds. They travel across land, bringing nutrients from wetland areas to more terrestrial habitats and vice versa. On a larger scale, animals provide food for different species.
The DNR has been actively investigating and trying to find marsh turtles in the state. If there’s still good habitat in South Carolina, it’s likely to be on private land, Gross said.
People can email DNR at [email protected] to share information about the species and alert biologists if they think their property includes suitable swamp turtle habitat. Grosse said the agency is always willing to follow up on leads and visit properties.
The Southern marsh turtle population may need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service said. The service will assess potential threats to the species during a 12-month status review.
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