In this seventh installment of the human stories behind herpetological research, we hear from Dirk J. Stevenson. Dirk describes some of the experiences behind a recent Natural History Note that he and his colleagues published in Herpetological Review. The citation for that note is as follows:
Stevenson, D.J., J.D. Mays, and H.C. Chandler. 2018. Clemmys guttata (Spotted Turtle). Coloration. Herpetological Review 49(2):317-318.
I once soiled a new suit capturing a spotted turtle. In early March, just after a job interview, I detoured on my ride home to roll by a south Georgia natural area with which I had become smitten. At the bottom of a large sandhill (complete with gopher tortoises and some stout eastern diamondbacks that used the tortoises’ burrows for winter dens) the amber-colored water of a blackwater stream ran under the road (when they are this small, the locals call them “branches”). The waters of the creek spilled into a floodplain pool, creeping toward the road.
From the driver’s seat, I looked over to see the dark carapaces of four small turtles, all close together and basking on a platform created by a huge fallen tree. Ah, a fine herd of painted turtles (a species I grew up with), I thought… Then, it occurred to me that I was well outside the range of painters. My goodness, they were spotted turtles!
I tumbled from my Volkswagen and as I ran downslope toward the turtles I conducted a poor-man’s strip tease−tossing my sport coat over my shoulder, kicking off a new loafer that tomahawked through the air…I was still wrestling with my tie and crisply-starched white shirt when the turtles began to plunk. Spotties are smart, and below their perch on the root wad associated with this giant hardwood treefall (known as “hurricanes”) was a bowl of deep water (ca. five feet) in an otherwise very shallow swamp. For many minutes I groped for them in the leaf-strewn benthos of the swamp pool, they had to be there…as my hands became numb and pink from the cold water, I considered sobbing. Then, I felt the form of a four-inch flat stone, the movement of a black and orange leg.
Reared in southern Illinois, my experience with spotted turtles was non-existent. From reading field guides and turtle books, including the epic works of Phil Smith (The Amphibians and Reptiles of Illinois) and Sherman Minton (Amphibians and Reptiles of Indiana) I gathered that spotties inhabited fens, small bogs and marshy sites. You know, the idyllic open-canopied and extended-vista places where sphagnum moss
grows mattress deep and naturalists stroll boardwalks observing cacophonous blackbirds swaying from the cattails. When I began mark-recapture studies of spotted turtles in Georgia and Florida six years ago−with my esteemed colleagues the thoughtful, moustached scholar Houston Chandler of The Orianne Society and the ebullient, hardcore naturalist Jonathan Mays of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission−I was surprised to learn that in the Deep South Clemmys guttata is a denizen of the darkest swamps.
Our south Georgia and north Florida spotted turtle study sites include cypress swamps and hydric hammocks that possess a distinct subtropical feel. Epiphytes beard giant hardwoods and columnar cabbage palms form umbrellas above tannin-stained waters, waters carrying secrets. During my youth, I hadn’t pictured spotted turtles in places where pit vipers are abundant, where black bears roam. We use a trap type that cannot be moved, or consumed, by alligators or crawfish-crazed otters, and it behooves one to carefully scan the earth, the closest log, before sitting − due to the abundance of pigmy rattlesnakes and cottonmouths (a woman we met along the way described the diminutive, tightly-coiled and colorful Sistrurus miliarius as “yard flowers”). My wife Beth reminds me that the turtle traps housed in our garage smell a bit loud, that is they reek of aging sardine juice (to me it’s a smell akin to data).
One April morning in 2015 I lifted one our modified crab-wire turtle traps (Chandler, H. C., D.J. Stevenson, J.D. Mays, B.S. Stegenga, W. H. Vaigneur, and M. D. Moore. 2017. A new trap design for catching small emydid and kinosternid turtles. Herpetological Review 48(2):323−327) to find a trio of adult eastern mud turtles − and something else that caused me to holler, blink and reconsider. Now, you can bet that we encounter many odd-looking spotted turtles – males “Dent” and “Igor” came with grossly deformed carapaces (indented and swollen, respectively); from predation attempts, large chunks of shell had been bitten and removed from a juvenile (“Survivor”) and adult male (“Crash”); many turtles are missing a limb.
But, the strange little creature was a spotted turtle unlike any we had ever seen.
We described this interesting specimen − we have recaptured her in each year since her initial capture− as being hypomelanistic (reduced black pigment) and/or erythristic (pronounced red pigment). I remember thinking that “Melanie” would be an appropriate moniker given her cantaloupe-colored carapace. If you have had the pleasure to work with them, you know that all spotted turtles are beautiful (and although we mark each of our charges with a unique notch sequence, adults come with different spot patterns − easily discerned using photos).
Wading a spottie swamp in our region, in the spring, is a spiritual gig. Swallow-tailed kites, newly returned from Brazil, careen overhead. The cool water is refreshing. To the speedy zzzzipp tunes of Northen Parulas I wade slowly and dial in my search image, hoping to pick up the cryptic pattern of a small speckled turtle motionless on the bottom. I pass plants with cool names − dog hobble, titi, lizard tail− and ogle the soft lavender petals of blue flag iris, sniff the scenty maroon blossoms of Florida anise.
There is a spotted turtle specimen in the USNM collection from the south Georgia county where I now reside, collected by an R.J. Thompson from a rice plantation in 1892. An endearing local name in use then for Chelopus guttatus was “speckled tortoise”. The excellent field research and demographic studies of spotted turtles by Jacqueline Litzgus and colleagues tell us that, remarkably, male spotted turtles may live to ages of 60 years in the wild, females to 110 years.
I last saw a spottie on a sunny but brisk afternoon in late February. It was a male, “Poolboy”. A turtle I have known a long time, he was basking on the same log I have seen him on many times. Having just emerged from the bottom ooze his shell was discolored and crusty with debris. I saw him wince several times, blinking as small gnats attempted to sip from his eyes. Working with these small handsome turtles, reflecting on their long, experience-rich lives, has been as meaningful as it has enjoyable.