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A Partnership of UNH Cooperative Extension and NH Fish and Game

Studying Spotted Turtles

Spotted turtles are a state threatened species in New Hampshire. (Photo by Mike Marchand, NHFG)Spring 2018 kicked off the start of a new spotted turtle project to learn more about these small wetland turtles in order to develop better conservation actions.  Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program biologists will be using small baited turtle traps in wetlands and vernal pools to capture turtles where they are suspected to be. Each individual will then be given a series of small notches on its shell so that biologists can keep track where and when that turtle is caught again. This mark-recapture method allows us to estimate population sizes over time and that data will be compared regionally with other eastern states from Maine to Florida who are also participating in this project. A few turtles will have radio transmitters attached to their shells so we learn more about local movements. Thanks to observations submitted by NH residents and citizen scientists to our Reptile and Amphibian Reporting Program (RAARP), we have a pretty good idea of spotted turtles’ geographic range in the state. Knowing that these turtles are restricted to mostly the southern half of the state is important, but we also need to figure out where the highest density populations are and ways to best protect them. 

Spotted turtles are famously secretive and often take advantage of relatively small aquatic habitats, such as vernal pools, forested wetlands, channels, and fens. It has been observed that they are often the first turtle species to emerge from winter hibernation. David Carroll, NH’s well known naturalist, author, and artist has provided rare insight to these early spring behaviors. He has observed spotted turtles coming up out of partially frozen water and basking on snow and ice-covered edges and hummocks. After those early season upland jaunts and reprieves from their watery environments, spotted turtles make larger upland migrations. Like Blanding’s turtles, vernal pools are a favorite springtime target for spotted turtles as they seek a crucial food resource – frog and salamander eggs. These temporary wetlands are a breeding ground for many salamander species, as well as spring peepers and wood frogs. For these reasons, the importance of vernal pools on the landscape cannot be underestimated. Spotted turtles may make several more wetland movements throughout the season and is why intact unfragmented landscapes are paramount for their survival. Roads or developments that bisect these habitats increase the risk of road mortality as turtles go from wetland to wetland or to nesting habitats. 

Spotted turtles make extensive movements among a variety of wetland and terrestrial habitats. (Photo by Mike Marchand)In recent years, the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program has been involved in several projects in cooperation with other states to learn more about at-risk turtles (Blanding’s and wood turtles) and other species and develop better actions to protect them. These projects are funded though U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Competitive State Wildlife Grants. These regional projects have allowed us to identify core populations, understand habitat use, and facilitate conservation actions within NH and throughout the species ranges. Our goal is that by the completion of this grant, we will have a better understanding of spotted turtle ecology that can guide the development of a conservation plan to recover this unique and increasingly rare NH turtle. By building upon established relationships with key conservation partners and landowners we are optimistic that we will reach these goals.    

By Josh Megyesy, Wildlife Biologist, NH Fish and Game Department
Spring 2018 Taking Action for Wildlife Newsletter