New Jersey Audubon’s Stewardship staff have been working with the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to improve wetland habitat for New Jersey’s rarest turtle. The bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) is a small (4 inches in length), secretive reptile that inhabits open, mucky freshwater wetlands throughout the state, but its population has declined in recent decades.
As a federally threatened, state endangered species, the bog turtle and its specific habitat needs have been getting quite a bit of attention. In amongst the vast acres of cropland and pastureland in Salem County resides a bog turtle population nestled within a small, open wetland. Although these turtles have persisted here for quite some time, NJ Audubon and NJ DFW’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP) have been working tirelessly to learn more about this population in order to enhance and improve their habitat.
This year, May and June were very busy times for both the staff and the turtles. The beginning of the active season started with survey efforts to locate turtles and outfit them with radio transmitters. Despite one survey conducted during a cold (~50F) rainy day, these efforts turned up one new adult female, as well as a few old friends (two female turtles and two male turtles). Because of these efforts, the total head count of marked turtles reached ten – a seemingly small number, but a huge feat for a species that is slow to reproduce, lives for decades, and can be very difficult to find.
The end of May proved to be just as exciting as the beginning of the month for this population. After a long Memorial Day Weekend, staff from NJ Audubon, along with ENSP worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society from the Bronx Zoo to conduct comprehensive health assessments for individual bog turtles. The veterinarian team took each turtles’ weight and measurements, along with a few swabs of the mouth and a blood sample. These samples will then go back to the lab for analysis to determine the presence of certain diseases. The team tests for diseases such as ranavirus, a group of viruses that is most often fatal to amphibians, but is also known to negatively affect reptiles.
As May turned to June, both female bog turtles with radio transmitters were found to be “gravid,” meaning they were carrying eggs. This afforded NJ Audubon and ENSP staff a rare opportunity to follow the turtles to their preferred nesting sites. After countless hours of surveying and observing, the turtles finally nested in mid-June, which provided staff with intriguing and important information that will guide future land management efforts.
On the restoration front, NJ Audubon staff continued to work towards removing Phragmites from parts of the wetland. This invasive reed often out-competes native vegetation and reduces the amount of sun exposure that is so important for turtles to bask, forage, and nest.
This bog turtle habitat restoration project is a part of a multi-partner, long-term effort to improve habitat for both bog turtles and other plant and wildlife species. Funding for this project has been graciously provided by US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership, and Atlantic City Electric.
By Kristen Meistrell
Photos by Kristen Meistrell and Brittany Dobrzynski