Endangered Species Report #24
The Plymouth Red-Bellied Turtle

Written by: Holly L. Koppel

Driving through the suburban areas of Massachusetts, you would never guess that you are currently sharing space with Massachusetts's endangered turtle. This is the Plymouth red-bellied turtle, a very colorful turtle found only in Plymouth County, Massachusetts. This turtle was largely ignored by developers, policy-makers, and environmentalists until the late 1980's when environmentalists discovered that only about 200 of these turtles remained in the wild.

Several factors have been highlighted as reasons why this species, known as the largest turtle in Massachusetts, was going extinct. One of the biggest reasons for the decline in population was mainly due to habitat loss. According to F.H. SaintOurs's article "Turtle Conservation in Rapidly Developing Suburban Areas", more than 16,000 acres of forests, farmlands, and wetlands are converted for lawns, buildings, and parking lots every year in Massachusetts. This causes major problems for the turtles who depend on these areas for food, shelter, and a safe place to lay their eggs. Also, turtles have a homing instinct which compels them to return to their home year after year. This has proved to be very detrimental to the turtle's survival because they will return home to a place that has been developed. This leads to many turtle deaths at the hands of man by bulldozers coming through their habitat and by cars as they attempt to cross our busy highways.

SaintOurs suggests that we must set up what he calls "movement corridors" which are like the wildlife overpasses found in Florida (see endangered species article #22). If we implemented this idea throughout the United States, we could help save not only the Plymouth Red-bellied turtle, but also other turtles from being hit by cars on our highways. He also suggests that we protect turtle nesting areas by marking them as "Turtle Conservation Areas" so that developers will not be able to develop the land. This would help the turtle population by protecting the egg sites from being developed over.

Another problem for the survival for the Plymouth Red-bellied turtle is the high mortality rate amongst baby turtles. Young turtles are vulnerable to predators such as skunks, raccoons, birds and fish. In 1986, a program called "Head Start" was started to give hatchling turtles a chance. This program provides a warm, predator free environment and a constant supply of food. There are currently two facilities that support this program, the New England Aquarium and The Berkshire Museum. The Berkshire Museum has been involved in this program since 1986 and so far, they have not lost a single turtle. In the summer of 2000, a milestone was reached in the Berkshire's efforts to restore the red-bellied turtle when a female that had been raised in captivity in 1987-88 as a hatchling was discovered laying her eggs near a Plymouth County pond. According to the museum, this is the first time a turtle that was originally part of a head start effort has been documented as a reproducing adult in the wild.

The final reason the red bellied turtle is endangered is due to pesticide use in Massachusetts. Aquatic herbicides, a type of pesticide used in ponds to decrease pond vegetation, has been show to affect the red bellied's food source and also disrupts their habitat. SaintOurs suggests that to help protect the turtle from the danger of pesticides, we must limit the use of chemicals on the ponds that turtles frequent and in the cranberry bogs near turtle areas. He also suggests that we should eliminate the use of pesticides and fertilizers during nesting season to protect them.

Since the 1980's when the turtle was recognized as an endangered species, little has been done to help them; so far the only programs to help them are the "head start" programs that protect the young hatchlings. To further protect this species and other turtle species, we must follow Florida's example and implement wildlife overpasses, we must protect nest sites by the creation of "Turtle Conservation Areas" and we must also educate people about turtles. Hopefully then, we can help out all turtle species, not only in Massachusetts, but throughout America.