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Wild Turtles in Texas Are Declining; Here’s How Experts Are Responding

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

wild turtle

Story at-a-glance -

  • Four species of turtles in the Lone Star State have been scrutinized by wildlife experts in recent years in regard to their dwindling status
  • These turtle species are considered “nongame” and are included along with other wildlife to comprise more than 90 percent of the wildlife in Texas
  • The main reason these turtle types are decreasing is because commercial entities have been collecting smaller ones to sell to pet stores, and larger turtles for food in overseas markets
  • Besides several aspects of modern life, such as being hit on the road, delayed sexual maturity in these turtles means they have less time to procreate and bring their numbers up

Four turtle species in the Lone Star State have been dwindling in number over the last several years, say officials from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). That observation has led to a proposed amendment to the organization’s rules that could end up saving these now-rare freshwater turtle varieties from being placed on the threatened or endangered lists, or worse.

In fact, TPWD notes that populations of the four species in question are no longer abundant enough to support market exploitation, or have already been exploited to the point that their populations have become unstable.

Harvesting turtles from Texas' public lakes and rivers is already prohibited, but the turtle species that have spawned such scrutiny and garnered a scramble to institute protective measures are described by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (Oklahoma being a state with all four of these species):1

  • Red-eared slider — Adults reach nearly 12 inches in carapace (top shell) length. Recently hatched juveniles are just over an inch in plastron (bottom shell) length. You may see them basking on logs and rocks jutting above the surface of ponds, lakes and rivers. The number of eggs laid links to their size; from three eggs when small to as many as 17 in larger females.
  • Common snapping turtle — Easily confused with alligator snapping turtles (discussed below), the common type has a smooth, sectioned shell, and their bodies are too large to fit completely underneath it. They have saw-toothed tails and only reach sexual maturity at 11 to 16 years old. Nests dug into sandbeds can be as far as 200 feet from the water, and there are several egg predators.
  • Smooth softshell turtle — Their feet are webbed and their snouts long and thin. Males reach sexual maturity in about four years versus nine years for females. Adult females’ shell length can reach 14 inches, or 7 inches for males.
  • Spiny softshell turtle — Both softshell turtle varieties have no “scutes” on their shells, and both are smooth and leather-like except that the spiny species has distinct spines at the front and back of the shell. Adult females have a 17-inch carpace length, on average, while males are around 9 inches. Hatchlings measure around 1.5 inches.

Turtles of these species are considered “nongame” by wildlife authorities and are included, along with other wildlife that fall into the same category, in more than 90 percent of the wildlife in Texas. Other animals in this category include such elusive animals as bobcats, coyotes, armadillos, mountain lions, prairie dogs and porcupines, but also more common ones such as rabbits, frogs, ground squirrels and rock squirrels (the urban backyard variety).

However, one of the reasons for the alarmingly reduced numbers among these turtle types in recent years is fairly predictable: Commercial entities have been collecting them to sell to pet stores, especially when the turtles are small, as a popular (if misguided) gift for school-age children, and larger ones for food in markets overseas. As recently observed:

“In October 2017 TPWD reported that it received a petition that stated the current, continued commercial harvest of these turtle species would be unsustainable. The agency later confirmed via its own data and scientific research that this petition had merit.”2

Wildlife officials have noticed that commercial trade in three of the species has dwindled, indicating that at this point, there may not be enough to gather or harvest. Still, state officials are hopeful that the proposed amendment3 will be enough to protect these turtle species well enough and for long enough for them to replenish their numbers.

Other Factors Contributing to the Turtles’ Disappearance

Commercial enterprise isn’t always the reason for the slow decline of wild turtle species. According to TPWD officials, several other factors have ushered in the “state of emergency,” so to speak, in regard to their lowered numbers. One is habitat loss. Another is delayed sexual maturity, which impacts the red-eared slider,4 for instance, simply because it has less time within its five- to seven-year window in which to reproduce and replace itself, in a matter of speaking, if it should become a casualty.

Add its low reproductive rate, and statistics show a reduction in the total populations, even without the fact that they’re being harvested quicker than they can be replaced. The lowered number of these turtles in particular also points to a few interconnected dynamics that can be attributed to modern life, such as polluted water, loss of habitat and high numbers of them being hit by vehicles on the road.

If you know anything about Texas, you’re probably aware that flooding is a frequent occurrence, and it definitely impacts these turtle species. As a matter of fact, TPWD recently submitted a report to be on the lookout for them:

“As flood waters recede, wild animals will start to appear in areas where they didn’t used to be. Snapping turtles are a species of concern for wildlife biologists, so we are asking for help in reporting these fascinating, almost prehistoric animals. This research project is a collaboration between Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Turtle Survival Alliance, and North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group.

We are primarily interested in alligator snapping turtle sightings. They will have a triangularly shaped head, with a pointed nose, and a pronounced hook in their beak. They will also have three rows of extremely prominent ridges on the top of their back.”5

Anyone sighting what they think might be a snapping turtle, or more specifically, an alligator snapping turtle (which is on the threatened species list), in Texas is asked take photos, especially of its head, to send to iNaturalist6 to verify the sighting and location, but experts also caution individuals never to get too close to any type of “snapper” as they can be large and aggressive and you could get hurt.

Other Texas Turtles Also Vulnerable

Several other reptiles as well as amphibian species in Texas, such as snakes, lizards, salamanders and toads, are also on TPWD’s threatened and endangered list.7 Around the world, the sea turtle is on several endangered lists. The turtles in trouble in Texas are listed below:

Cagle's Map turtle (threatened)

Chihuahuan Mud turtle (threatened)

Green sea turtle (threatened both statewide and federally)

Hawksbill sea turtle (endangered both statewide and federally)

Kemp's Ridley sea turtle (endangered both statewide and federally)

Leatherback sea turtle (endangered both statewide and federally)

Loggerhead sea turtle (threatened both statewide and federally)

Texas tortoise (threatened)

The National Wildlife Federation has excellent advice for anyone wanting to help slow-moving turtles safely across a road; don’t pick them up by their tails, for instance; take it to the direction it was already going, and always wash your hands afterward to avoid potential salmonella bacteria.

In conclusion, the conservation organization shares a good way of looking out for your hard-shelled friends: “Helping a turtle is worth the detour: Each one you save may be the mother of the next generation.”8

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