Where have all the frogs, toads and turtles gone? Reptile and amphibian populations have dropped markedly around the globe in the past decade. Their homes are changing rapidly due to water pollution, climate change, new diseases and conflicts with humans over land use and recreation. Habitat loss and degradation are considered to be the top reasons for the loss (Amphibiaweb, http://amphibiaweb.org/declines/ declines.html).
In Pennsylvania, the threatened red-bellied turtle lives in the most developed and densely populated southeast corner of the state. This large, long-lived, colorful turtle lives in coastal streams, rivers and wetlands along the eastern seaboard, but nests on land, often right where you would want to build your house for the best view.
Starting at age nine -- red-bellied turtles can live 50 to 100 years -- the females nest on land within one mile of the river's edge. They return to the same area year after year, which means the nest could end up in a parking lot, mowed lawn, oil refinery, casino or other developed location.
The large, aquatic turtles need to have access to deep stream channels and wetlands, because hatchlings (young turtles) eat lots of insects. The adults are more vegetarian and rely on plants. The hatchlings, in turn, are eaten in large numbers by the everincreasing raccoon population that thrives in cities and suburbs.
Turtles need rocks and logs in streams to bask on daily to warm their bodies. Red-bellied turtles want to have a clear escape
route, so they prefer to bask on
Another big issue for red-bellied turtles is competition from unwanted pets, such as red-eared sliders, which are native to Florida. Many people who buy turtles as pets are not aware of how long they live and how much daily care they need. They don't realize they need to write the turtle into their will! Will an 8-year-old want to still care for that turtle when he is 90? So what do people do with unwanted red-eared sliders? They release them into local parks and streams, where they compete with our native turtle species for food, basking sites and habitat.
To better understand red-bellied turtles and the threats they face, Philadelphia University is conducting research in the last 1,200 acres of freshwater tidal marsh in the state, located at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. The refuge is less than one mile from the Philadelphia airport and immediately adjacent to the I-95 superhighway.
The goal of the project is to find out what habitats adult male and female red-bellied turtles use over the course of an entire year, from breeding season in the spring through brumation, which is when turtles dig into the soft mud on the bottom of ponds and streams to survive the winter.