Rare spotted turtle gets endangered species protection

Spotted Turtle. Wikipedia image.

Spotted Turtle. Wikipedia image.

A rare and endangered turtle species in Vermont has received international protection.

The spotted turtle was listed on March 8 as a protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an agreement among 177 countries to restrict the international trade of species on the verge of extinction. Spotted turtles are collected and sold for food, medicine, and as pets, particularly to markets in Asia.

Vermont’s population of spotted turtles is small and found only in the southern and central parts of the state. Just three distinct populations are known, and only one of those is stable, according to Steve Parren, a zoologist with the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Parren said the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species protection will probably help Vermont’s spotted turtles, but other threats remain. “It helps,” he said, “but it doesn’t necessarily stop the illegal or naive collection that goes on.”

Parren was referring to several cases where spotted turtles were advertised for sale online and instances where people pick up wild turtles as pets without knowing what kind of turtle they are.

Spotted turtles were listed as threatened in Vermont in 1989. Despite a decade of searching for the species, only three populations were found. This led to the species being listed as endangered in 1999.

The species is 4 or 5 inches long. Its shells are black with yellow spots. The underside of the shell is yellow or orange with the plates lined in black. The skin is black with yellow spots. They live in warm, low-lying wetlands.

Spotted turtles were listed as threatened in Vermont in 1989. Despite a decade of searching for the species, only three populations were found. This led to the species being listed as endangered in 1999.

Parren said besides collection, spotted turtles are threatened by habitat loss and land fragmentation. One of the populations in Vermont was threatened by a new housing development until the state bought the land. Another population is cut in two by a railroad.

Parren worked with railroad officials to install tiny culverts under the rails so the turtles could get safely across to find food and mates.

Although the location of these populations is kept secret and Parren is not aware of widespread collecting, he knows determined and knowledgeable collectors can find the turtles.

“Quite often the people who are engaged in the pet trade have a fair amount of knowledge and they know how to find the turtles,” he said. “If I can find the turtles and I can capture the turtles, that means a good collector can do the same and maybe more.”

Although some of the land the spotted turtles live on is conserved as public lands, Parren said, “that doesn’t mean they can’t be collected out of existence.”

Spotted turtles are listed under Appendix II in Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which includes species that are not currently threatened with extinction but may become so if trade is not controlled. Species on this list are only allowed to be traded if it will not hurt the survival of the species and appropriate permits are acquired. The listing was a response to a 2011 petition to protect the turtles by the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization that pursues environmental conservation through litigation.

According to a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity, over 2 million live turtles are caught in the wild in the United States and shipped to Asia. A recent study published in the journal Biological Conservation estimated that over half of all turtle species are threatened with extinction.

Turtleshack.com, a Florida-based company, sells spotted turtles for between $430 and $490. The Turtle Shack website says their turtles are captive-bred and the company supports wild turtle conservation.

Jim Andrews, coordinator of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian atlas, said the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species listing could help limit illegal sales. One Vermont resident was arrested twice for selling spotted turtles online.

“If you could shut down the market outside the state then at least it would limit the market for a guy like that,” he said.

Those who already have spotted turtles as pets should not release them into the wild. Andrews said that pet turtles released into the wild are not likely to survive and may spread disease to wild turtles.

Two other turtles, Blanding’s turtle and the diamondbacked terrapin, received protection under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species at the same time as the spotted turtle, but neither are known to occur in Vermont.

Audrey Clark

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