Every terrapin, snapper, and slider can pop his head out of his shell and smile.
Thursday, May 23, was World Turtle Day, an annual observance to help people celebrate and protect turtles and tortoises and their disappearing habits around the world. And there are plenty of reasons to celebrate turtles in Wisconsin.
The state is home to 11 turtle species, though four are threatened, endangered, or of “special concern.” Biologists are working to ensure the long-range future of Wisconsin turtles, and note that the general public can do much to help.
“Most turtle species in Wisconsin are in some sort of decline,” said Andrew Badje, a Conservation Biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “However, some species are faring better than others, and can acclimate better to urban and residential areas.”
Species of turtles are found statewide, though the Lower Wisconsin River and Mississippi River have some of the highest concentrations. The two most common species in Wisconsin are painted turtles and snapping turtles.
Ten of the 11 Wisconsin turtle species are aquatic or semi-aquatic, while one is strictly a land-dweller. The ornate box turtle is classified as an endangered species, while the wood turtle is listed as threatened. Two others are listed as “species of special concern,” the smooth softshell and Blanding’s turtle. The latter turtle is prohibited from collection or harvest in Wisconsin and adjacent states.
Turtles play valuable roles in Wisconsin ecosystems. “Turtles provide important services, such as impacting soil formation, maintenance, and function,” remarked Badje. “Turtles are also good indicators of environmental health, because they accumulate toxins like PCBs, lead, mercury, and DDT in their systems because of their place in the food chain.”
As elsewhere, Wisconsin turtles face a number of challenges, including on roadways, where turtles are commonly found in warmer weather. Since turtles are cold-blooded, their body temperatures reflect the temperature of their surroundings. As they emerge from hibernation, turtles look for areas to warm their bodies, and they are drawn to highways, which hold heat.
“The biggest reason for turtle declines of all species in Wisconsin is road fragmentation and road mortality,” said Badje. “Habitat loss, alteration, and fragmentation are other drivers of local declines. In addition, some of our more rare species, like the ornate box turtle, wood turtle, and Blanding’s turtle, are also threatened by illegal collection for the pet trade.”
There are many other ways for the average citizen to protect turtles across the state. Turtles should never be removed from the wild, and, likewise, pet turtles should not be released into the wild, as they spread disease to the wild populations.
Other protective measures include the refusal to purchase restaurant foods containing turtle products, or souvenirs made from real turtles. If buying a pet turtle, make sure it is produced by a reputable breeder and not taken from the wild.
Citizens can support turtle habitat protection and development, such as wetland and prairie restorations, and are urged to report road crossing mortalities to the Wisconsin DNR. Efforts are also being made to construct “turtle-friendly” roads, and “turtle crossing signs” may also be installed to warn motorists of turtles on roads.
For more information on how to protect turtles in Wisconsin, visit www.wiatri.net/inventory/witurtles/volunteer/mortalityPrev.cfm.
[Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Illinois. He may be reached at 217.710.8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org]