Searching for Elusive Turtles

Biologist Scott Egan and his canine assistant, Jadis.

In September, I had the opportunity to join a group of field biologists as they searched for two rare turtle species at SVT’s Memorial Forest Reservation in Sudbury: the wood turtle and the eastern box turtle. The field biologists are conducting multiple visits to Memorial Forest in an effort to locate these rare and hard-to-find turtles.

Any wood turtles or eastern box turtles found during the survey will be fitted with radio transmitters for tracking. The information gathered will be valuable not only to Sudbury Valley Trustees, but to all conservation land owners. An understanding of the prevalence and movement of these rare species will help us create better land management plans for our reservations.

Wood turtles are medium-sized with orange coloration on their legs and neck. Wood turtles spend the spring and summer in mixed or deciduous forests, hay fields, and wetlands, while in late summer and early fall they move to streams for hibernation. These turtles occasionally exhibit a strange feeding behavior called “stomping.” The turtle stomps on the ground, alternating its front feet to cause vibrations in the soil. Earthworms, thinking that the vibration is rainfall, move to the surface to avoid drowning and are quickly devoured by the hungry wood turtle.

Eastern box turtles, in comparison, are small terrestrial turtles with oval, high-domed shells of variable coloration. This turtle can be found in several types of habitats—including brushy fields and woodlands—though it tends to hibernate in upland forest, burrowing under the soft ground to stay warm. The eastern box turtle’s name originates from its ability to completely enclose its head, legs, and tail within the shell. Both species are active from early to mid-April through mid- to late-October.

The biologists are conducting their survey in Fall 2017 and Spring 2018. They are using two survey methods—meander searches, in which they spread out and walk through the forest, and scent tracking, in which a trained dog searches for the turtles. Scent tracking is accepted by the Massachusetts National Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) as a valid survey method for turtles. The specific dog working on this survey, Jadis, has been very successful on other projects. Biologist Scott Egan noted that in a previous survey, Jadis located more turtles than four biologists combined!

Unfortunately, we did not find turtles on the day I joined the survey team, but we did find other wildlife, including a yellow spotted salamander and a ring-necked snake, with its charcoal-colored back and its vibrant, yellow belly. Thus far, the biologists have not located turtles.

Although the turtle survey itself is exciting, the reason for its occurrence is not. Eversource is proposing to construct a new transmission line along the MBTA Right-of-Way that connects Sudbury and Hudson. This abandoned rail line serves as the northern boundary of Memorial Forest and bisects the Desert Natural Area, a biologically rich area which SVT and its many partners have been working to restore over the past two decades.

To determine the environmental impact of its proposed project, Eversource is being required to assess the importance of the area to these rare turtles. The NHESP has listed both of these turtles as “special concern” species of Massachusetts, and a common threat to their survival is new development. Sudbury Valley Trustees is opposing the transmission line due to the significant impact the project would have on the Desert Natural Area and its wildlife.

By Paige Dolci, Land Stewardship Coordinator, TerraCorps-AmeriCorps