A Tiny Turtle in Trouble

May 10, 2011

Why are North America’s smallest turtles getting sick? By giving full health check-ups to the rare reptiles, WCS and partners aim to clear the fog hanging over bog turtles. It's a much-needed rescue mission for a species now considered endangered in New York and Massachusetts.

North America’s smallest turtle has big problems. Bog turtles have been mysteriously falling ill for the past few years, and along with their numbers, their habitat is shrinking. In New York and Massachusetts, where the turtles are considered endangered, WCS health experts are in the field investigating the culprit.

“We’re conducting a broad screening in order to identify a cause or causes for the increase in bog turtle deaths,” said Dr. Bonnie Raphael, WCS’s department head for wildlife medicine. “This information will be used to help determine if these recent losses are attributable to infectious disease, environmental perturbations, or other factors.”

Bog turtles grow to 4.5 inches in length and weigh only about 4 ounces. No one knows exactly how many of them are out there, but experts are certain that they occur within isolated patches of habitat in the eastern United States. The turtles can live in meadows and marshes, at woodland edges, and, true to their name, in bogs.

The team—which includes the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), the NY Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program—is scooping up the pint-size patients (actually closer to half-pint-size) and giving them full exams. The check-ups involve testing the turtles’ blood and feces, swabbing their cloacas, and performing biopsies to get a general idea of the population’s health. Experts hope this will eventually help them pinpoint the problem and guide efforts to save those turtles that remain.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has made bog turtle recovery a priority,” said Alison Whitlock, FWS coordinator for the Northeast region’s bog turtle recovery program. “We are working with many partners from state agencies, non-government organizations, and private landowners to address the threats to this species. Working with the Wildlife Conservation Society to conduct this health assessment addresses one of the recovery objectives, and we are looking forward to continuing this partnership in conservation.”

Since 1973, WCS has been studying and working to protect bog turtles. Recognized as turtle health experts for their work in the field and within our zoos, WCS veterinarians are exceptionally qualified for this investigation.


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