SC was home to North America’s smallest turtle, but habitat loss pushed most animals out | SC Climate and Environment News

North America’s smallest turtle is crawling into a swamp, and the federal government is wondering if the species should be protected to get it out.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service last month announced plans to review the status of the southern population of the rare bog turtle — last seen in South Carolina more than two decades ago — after receiving applications to list the animal for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

South Carolina’s population, mostly connected to the Upstate, has received state protections over the years that make it illegal for people to collect or possess the animals without a permit.

Federal protections can mean more regulations to avoid taking species and issuing permits for prohibited activities. The Fish and Wildlife Service can also implement species recovery plans if necessary.

Bog turtles live in rare wetlands known as southern Appalachian bogs. But the limited availability and loss of these mountain bog habitats due to drainage, conversion to other uses and degradation continue to threaten the species.

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In South Carolina, bog turtles are known to live north of the Greenville area. It’s been close to 20 years since the state Department of Natural Resources last recorded turtles.

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“The records we have are individuals that have died on the road or are crossing the road, and a lot of that has to do with habitat loss,” said state herpetologist Andrew Grasse.

Grasse said rare species that are smaller and smaller, like bog turtles, are more collectible and bring less money.

Adult bog turtles grow to about the size of hatchlings and have shells up to 4½ inches long. They are known for their yellow-orange cheek spots.

The northern population was first listed as threatened in 1997 due to threats from poaching for the illegal turtle trade.

The SC Turtle Sanctuary in Berkeley County is home to 25 of the world's most endangered species.

“I don’t know how easy it is to find them for sale anymore because of how protected they are and how small their population is,” Grasse said. “But, historically, they were in high demand and I know they brought in quite a bit of money overseas in various pet businesses.”

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Bog turtles prefer boggy areas in South Carolina because of the open, deep soil they provide for spring-feeding or the headwaters of streams.

This habitat is important for two reasons. Animals spend time burrowing in the soil, and boggy areas often have an open canopy without many trees. In addition, they provide small marsh-type plants and grasses that animals use to hide while traveling.

But many times, with the natural process of forestation, trees begin to grow and shade the wetlands. This leads to the loss of the lining that the turtles depend on, Grasse said.

In some areas, biologists have observed that the animals’ preferred habitats have been turned into barriers or small ponds due to a nearby continuous water source. Bog turtles are not swimming turtles, so they cannot thrive in that environment.

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Their overlooked role is seed dispersal. They travel over land to take nutrients from wetlands to more terrestrial habitats and vice versa. To a large extent, animals provide food for various species.

The DNR is actively surveying and trying to find bog turtles in the state. If there’s even better habitat in South Carolina, it’s probably on private land, Grasse said.

A rare two-headed sea turtle was spotted while doing a nest inventory at Edisto Beach State Park

People can email the DNR at [email protected] to share information about the species and alert biologists if they believe their property contains suitable bog turtle habitat. Gross said the agency is always willing to follow up on leads and visit properties.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says the southernmost population of bog turtles may warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act. The Service evaluates potential threats to the species during 12-month status reviews.

Follow Shamira McCray on Twitter @ShamiraTweets.


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