Oh, Snap

An ancient turtle may be coming to a town near you.

For more than 40 million years the common snapping turtle, a.k.a. Chelydra serpentina, has inhabited the temperate-zone ponds, lakes, swamps, ditches, puddles and salt marshes that define its native habitats.

Now, according to a new study published in the journal Urban Ecosystems, those habitations are expanding to more urban settings, a development that is dramatically boosting the number of people-and-snapper encounters.

Startled snapping turtle spotters often assume these intimidating creatures are a menace. Not true, says Bill Peterman, a biological sciences post-doctoral researcher at MU who participated in a recent effort to document the extent of the turtles’urban migration.

“Everyone has a snapping turtle story, but some are just too far-fetched and lead to false accusations,” Peterman says. “In reality, snapping turtles aren’t aggressive animals and won’t bite unless they are provoked.”

This habit of forbearance is particularly praiseworthy given that we humans are largely responsible for their displacement. It is our exurban sprawl, chemical wastes, and other forms of habitat degradation, researchers say, that have gradually forced snapping turtles to decamp to more heavily populated spaces.

The good news, Peterman and his colleagues found, is this ancient species — one of the oldest on the planet — seems to be making a fairly smooth transition to city life, at least in the Midwestern metropolis under consideration. The study used tracking devices to monitor the movements of snapping turtles that had colonized Indianapolis’Central Canal, a waterway constructed in the 1830s that has today been partially restored to include an 8-mile-long urban park and recreation area.

The study determined that the turtles were using all parts of the Central Canal and its adjacent parkland, with forested areas being particularly important.

“While we didn’t study whether the snapping turtle populations were increasing or decreasing, we regularly saw hatchling and juvenile snapping turtles,” Peterman says. “Snapping turtles may not be the first animals that come to mind when thinking about urban wildlife, but if we continue to improve waterways in more places, such as big cities, then the species can coexist peacefully.”

Even more important, he adds, is reducing the need for turtles to seek out places like the Central Canal in the first place. Improving conservation and environmental practices would allow snapping turtles to stay at home. “Unfortunately,” he says, “suitable aquatic habitats for turtles [continue to be] degraded by pollution or completely lost due to development.”

The study was part of ongoing research conducted through Butler University’s Center for Urban Ecology.┬áIts lead author was Travis Ryan, associate professor and chair of the Department of Biological Science at Butler University. Jessica Stephens and Sean Sterrett of the University of Georgia–Athens also participated in the research.



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