Big Threat To A Little Turtle- Mysterious Disease Threatens Bog Turtle
Intelligencer Journal
Lancaster New Era (Pennsylvania. US)
Sep 08, 2009 09:14 EST
By AD CRABLE, Outdoor Trails

The diminutive bog turtle, a creature discovered for the world in Lancaster 
County in the 18th century, is facing yet another threat to its long 
precarious existence.

Already on the federal threatened list and endangered in Pennsylvania, the 
secretive bog turtles are now turning up dead, possibly victims of a new, 
mysterious disease.

With another suddenly occurring and heretofore unknown disease on the road 
to possibly wiping out most of Pennsylvania's bat population within several 
years, fans of the bog turtle are fearful at what might be creeping through 
isolated turtle colonies in the eastern United States.

In recent months, dead and diseased bog turtles have shown up in 
Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

In some cases, there has been no apparent cause of death. Bog turtles fall 
prey to such predators as raccoons, mice, skunks, foxes and birds but a 
mauling is usually obvious.

One unsubstantiated report says seven or eight empty shells were found near 
each other last year at a bog turtle site in Lebanon County.

Other living turtles have been found with a film on their bodies. Missing 
claws and skin lesions and sloughing skin also have been found.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was sufficiently alarmed to issue a bog 
turtle disease alert in August.

Those who study and watch over known bog turtle populations are being asked 
to send dead bog turtles to the National Wildlife Health Center for 

"It could be devastating to bog turtles," says George Gress, The Nature 
Conservancy's project manager of the 100-acre Acopian Preserve in northern 
Lancaster County.

"It's something that comes on the heels of the white-nose syndrome with the 
bat population so it has people nervous."

Writes Tim Abbott, a former TNC overseer of bog turtle conservation, about 
sites he oversaw in Massachusetts, Connecticut and eastern New York: "This 
is extremely troubling news...Past research indicates that the loss of just 
one breeding adult a year at these sites would be enough to tip the balance 
toward extirpation."

Bog turtles have a very low reproduction rate.

So far, Gress reports, no dead or diseased bog turtles have been found in a 
bog turtle preserve in West Cocalico Township.

The Acopian Preserve, purchased by the nonprofit conservation group in 1989 
with financial help from Easton businessman Sarkis Acopian, used to contain 
the largest bog turtle population in Pennsylvania.

It once had about 100 bog turtles, but now estimates are closer to 60.

Some of the decline is believed to be from predation. And some, despite 
monitoring by the group and nearby residents, by poachers. Bog turtles, 
despite a ban on possessing or taking them from the wild, remain a black 
market mainstay.

Only reaching a maximum size of 4 inches, bog turtles are "cute" and highly 
desirable by unscrupulous hobbyists.

The Acopian Preserve remains a crucial link in bog turtle research because 
its colony has been studied longer than any other in the United States.

Turtles there have been marked and studied for almost 40 years and there are
two turtles still living there that are at least 49 years old.

"They are the oldest known bog turtles in the wild in their range," notes 

In the near future, bog turtles at the preserve and two others TNC manages 
in Cumberland and Monroe counties, will have tiny, electronic tags injected 
into their body cavities.

About the size of a grain of rice, the tags would enable law enforcement to 
identify the turtles' source if, for example, they are confiscated in an 
illegal trade sting.

TNC is also preparing to install surveillance cameras at bog turtle sites, 
including at the Acopian Preserve, Gress said.

The bog turtle was discovered by the Rev. Gotthilf Hunrich Ernst Muhlenberg,
a Colonial-era self-taught botanist who was responsible for the names of
about 150 species of plants.

Muhlenberg was involved in a survey of plants in Lancaster County when he 
inadvertently came across a tiny turtle.

The turtle was named in 1801 "Clemmys muhlenbergii" or Muhlenberg's 
tortoise. In 1956, when the custom of using common names to commemorate 
individuals fell out of favor, the turtle was renamed bog turtle.

Bog turtles, actually, don't live so much in wetlands as in streamside 
meadows filled with sedge grasses. They spend much of their lives basking in
the sun.

Cattle grazing in Lancaster County and elsewhere have actually been 
beneficial to bog turtles as they keep such meadows from evolving into 

Their shells are usually black or mahogany. Their most telltale 
characteristic is a prominent yellow or orange splotch on each side of the 
head behind the eye.

The spotted turtle looks similar and shares bog turtle habitat but the 
spotted has yellow or light spots on the upper shell.

Most of us will never see one of these divine creatures. But keep your 
fingers crossed they remain out there, part of the web of life that keeps us

Allen Salzberg


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