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A 'shellabration' to last throughout the years

So bring your turtles and your tortoises, too, we gonna celebrate your party with you by Kim Dishongh | May 24, 2021 at 1:01 a.m.
A box turtle makes its way July 19, 2019, through the woods in Greenland. Arkansas is home to 16 species of turtle, but their numbers appear to be declining. Visit nwaonline.com/210523Daily/ for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

About 300 species of turtles exist in the world, and 16 of them can be found in Arkansas.

"That may not seem like a whole lot, but it's actually close to about 5% of the diversity in the whole world that we have represented right here in Arkansas," says Kory Roberts, who created and maintains the Herps of Arkansas website.

Sunday was set aside as a day to "shellabrate" them all. This year was the 20th anniversary of World Turtle Day, sponsored by the American Tortoise Rescue as an annual observance of turtles, tortoises and their disappearing habitat.

Lori Monday, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission regional educator, says habitat loss is the biggest threat to turtles in the state.

Although this is the time of year turtles can most often be seen making their slow marches across Arkansas roadways, those sightings are less likely now than in past years.

It's tough to get an accurate count, Monday said.

"But I will tell you that we have several species in decline, like our ornate box turtle. That's one we used to be able to see all the time," Monday said.

DWINDLING NUMBERS

The ornate box turtle and the more common three-toed box turtle are the only two of the 16 species native to Arkansas that are terrestrial; the other 14 species are aquatic turtles.

The ornate box turtle lives only in natural prairie lands, primarily in the northwestern corner of the state. Their numbers have dwindled, likely because of development of some of its natural habitat, and the Game and Fish Commission has restricted their collection to protect the remaining population.

Chicken turtles, an aquatic species so named for their long necks, are another type less commonly found these days.

"We're doing population studies, but pretty much you used to see them everywhere, and now it's pretty rare to find them," Monday says.

So why does the turtle cross the road anyway?

Basically, according to Monday, it crosses because it needs to get to the other side, either to find a bare patch of ground where it can lay its eggs or to get back to where it came from afterward.

"The way turtles reproduce, they can actually retain the eggs and then come springtime those moms have got to move out of the water where they have been hibernating, and they have to go dig and lay those eggs," she said.

MOVE 'EM ALONG

Wildlife photographer and outdoorsman David Martin of Oxford in Izard County is one of many well-intentioned folks who stop to move turtles out of the path of oncoming vehicles.

"It's always been a compassion thing," he said. "Growing up, when I was with my parents or with my friends -- and once we started driving by ourselves -- when there are turtles on the road, I've always just picked them up and moved them. I'm teaching that to my kids as well."

Monday applauds such efforts, with the caveat that people should only stop for turtles when traffic conditions allow them to do so safely.

"And I try to tell people that turtles have beaks -- strong beaks -- and that if you're going to help them along you should always pick them up from the rear end because they have long necks," she said. "You always need to move them in the direction they were going because of that reproductive cycle I was talking about earlier."

Michele Merriman saw a big snapping turtle on the shoulder of a narrow two-lane road near her home in Craighead County a couple years ago.

She stopped her car, turned on the hazard lights and walked a few feet back to the turtle, which had already scooted under her car. She used an umbrella to lure him out and waved a visor in front of him. The turtle chomped down on the brim, and she used the hat to lead it across the road.

When they reached water on the other side of the highway, the turtle let go of Merriman's visor, dove in and swam away.

Some people may be tempted to take turtles away from the roadway altogether, either keeping them as pets or releasing them away from traffic. This often does more harm than good.

Box turtles are oriented to home within 1 or 2 square miles.

"If they get moved more than about a mile away from where you find them their survival rate is not actually very good, believe it or not," said Roberts, who is also a high school science teacher. "If you bring them out of their home territory, it really messes them up. They'll just be wandering around trying to figure out where they are."

PETS AND HARVEST

Roberts said turtle harvests also threaten turtle populations in Arkansas. Some individuals take snapping turtles for turtle soup, but it's the commercial harvesters that cause him the most concern.

"Mostly what they're doing is harvesting them for the Asian market, for pet or food trade, like the common snapping turtle, the river cooter, the red-eared slider and even the spiny softshell," Roberts said. "They're supposed to report their harvest numbers to Game and Fish, but I, and some other people, really question how accurately the trappers are reporting what they're taking."

Roberts and others petitioned the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in 2018 to ban commercial turtle harvests in the state. The commission denied their petition.

In 2019, commercial turtle harvest-related permits were capped at 150 per year, and the commission required each harvester tosubmit at least one report annually to renew a commercial harvester or dealer permit.

The commission closed the Gulf Coastal Plain and the St. Francis River in Greene and Clay counties to aquatic turtle harvest and prohibited the sale of razorback musk turtles. As of 2021, a turtle breeder or dealer permit is required to buy or sell alligator snapping turtles or their eggs, and alligator snapping turtles longer than 5 inches may not be sold or traded without written approval from the commission.

Turtles aren't just taken out of Arkansas. Monday hears often about problems resulting from the pet turtle trade.

Turtles are long-living and require special attention. Depending on its species, a lifespan can be 20, 50 or 100 years.

"That's a lifetime investment that you're making," said Monday of people who opt to buy turtles for pets.

Turtle species that are not native are sometimes released into the wild. Some species can spread disease, and they compete with native turtles for food and habitat.

"There's a species called a yellow-bellied slider that is big in the turtle trade, and it's not native here," she said. "People will buy them and then just go release them and they out-compete the chicken turtle. It really just offsets the entire food chain."

Monday was drawn to herpetology as a child, after she found her first snake. She studied turtles for her master's degree.

"What's interesting about turtles is they're so long-living and they have all of these cues, especially underwater, that we don't know anything about, like how they're communicating with each other," Monday said.

Male turtles are generally smaller than females because the females' scutes, the bony plates of their shells, grow to accommodate space for eggs.

"When you see those really big dome-shaped turtles, those are female turtles. I love the different colors, the different shapes, learning why they're important is interesting to me," she said.

EXPERT REHAB

Turtles have protective shells, but they aren't invincible.

They are commonly injured by lawn mowers, cars, pets, propellers and gunshots, and sometimes they just get sick.

"They get damaged a lot," Monday said. But they're resilient and if a turtle's carapace, or shell, is cracked, it can recover.

The Game and Fish Commission has a list of a handful of wildlife rehabilitators around the state who specialize in turtles.

Anna Heckmann of Fayetteville created the nonprofit Turtle Shire Rehabilitation Center about a year ago.

Wildlife rehabilitators receive permits from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. They are required to find a licensed rehabilitator to supervise their two-year apprenticeship, which is the stage Heckmann is finishing now.

When Heckmann gets a call about an injured turtle, she evaluates the situation to decide whether the turtle needs to come to her center for antibiotics and pain relief. She works closely with a veterinarian, who can take X-rays when necessary for diagnostics.

"He did amputate a prolapsed uterus in a turtle," said Heckmann, an adjunct professor of biology at Northwest Arkansas Community College.

Heckmann's goal is to help sick and injured turtles get better so they can be released.

"But when a turtle is injured it's usually because they're in a high traffic area or somewhere that poses a risk to them, so they have a better chance of survival if they can be released somewhere they can find a mate and reproduce and control the insect population and spread seeds and do everything they do for the environment," she said.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK Darcy Smith, festival director, holds a hand full of turtles Thursday, July 4, 2019, before the start of the turtle race during the Wesley Annual Horseshoe Pitching Tournament and Community Social at the Community Building in Wesley. The all day event featured both horseshoes and a corn hole tournament, food, games and fireworks. All proceeds raised went to support the Wesley Fire Department and Community Building. More photos: nwadg.com/photos
NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK Darcy Smith, festival director, holds a hand full of turtles Thursday, July 4, 2019, before the start of the turtle race during the Wesley Annual Horseshoe Pitching Tournament and Community Social at the Community Building in Wesley. The all day event featured both horseshoes and a corn hole tournament, food, games and fireworks. All proceeds raised went to support the Wesley Fire Department and Community Building. More photos: nwadg.com/photos
NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK Darcy Smith, festival director, holds a hand full of turtles Thursday, July 4, 2019, before the start of the turtle race during the Wesley Annual Horseshoe Pitching Tournament and Community Social at the Community Building in Wesley. The all day event featured both horseshoes and a corn hole tournament, food, games and fireworks. All proceeds raised went to support the Wesley Fire Department and Community Building. More photos: nwadg.com/photos
NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK Darcy Smith, festival director, holds a hand full of turtles Thursday, July 4, 2019, before the start of the turtle race during the Wesley Annual Horseshoe Pitching Tournament and Community Social at the Community Building in Wesley. The all day event featured both horseshoes and a corn hole tournament, food, games and fireworks. All proceeds raised went to support the Wesley Fire Department and Community Building. More photos: nwadg.com/photos
Turtle races still occur in some places despite warnings from experts who say the box turtles are miserable in captivity and should not be used as entertainment. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Turtle races still occur in some places despite warnings from experts who say the box turtles are miserable in captivity and should not be used as entertainment. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)
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Herps of Arkansas, https://herpsofarkansas.com.

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