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Fall 2009

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WRCP Grants At Work --

Photo courtesy Carolyn Steinberg, Env. & Cons. Biology major, Philadelphia
photo of adult red bellied turle with eyes open and head jutting out of shell

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.

sign at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge

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
sites in deep water. Boaters, canoeists, swimmers and kayakers disturb this shy
species from their sun-tanning activities. Plastic water bottles, basketballs, car parts and chemical pollution, such as heavy metals from industry, all decrease the quality of the water to the point where fish are not safe to eat. This degradation affects red-bellied turtles, too, as they live in the water all the time, except when the females go on land to build a nest.

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.

red-bellied turtle habitat is often in conflict with development by humans Red-bellied turtles live in the coastal region of southeast Pennsylvania, which puts their habitat needs into conflict with this highly urban area. One stronghold of the turtle is the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuget at Tinicum (view at left), near Philadelphia.

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.

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Pennsylvania Wild Resource Program