As 2018 comes to a close I have spent a lot of time looking back on this previous year of herping and what my friends and I have begun to refer to as “turtling.”
My lifelong fascination, passion, obsession with reptiles and amphibians and more specifically chelonians has driven me to see some incredible things in some pretty neat places. I have an even more ambitious list for 2019.
My highlights of 2018
These consisted of kicking off a spring break turtle survey with an amazing group of kiddos called the “Spring Lake Adventure Club” or SLAC / SLAC-ers. They got to learn the ins and outs of “turtle surveying 101.” They even have their own blog! I’ll talk more about them in future blog posts. https://chroniclesofslackers.wordpress.com/
This year also marked the first full year of the Trinity River Turtle Survey led by our pal Andrew Brinker. The Trinity River Turtle Survey (TRTS) is a mark and recapture long term population monitoring study. https://www.facebook.com/trinityturtlesurvey/
Also, we continued into the second year of a study on alligator snapping turtles in Harris County.
In April I traveled to Pennsylvania to take part in a wood turtle study/survey led by some of my fellow turtle nerds or as I like to refer to them, my Turtle Family. Pennsylvania was not only a stop to check out wood turtles but a chance to get in some herping of some other amazing species. My buddy Andy Weber not only blew the trip out of the water by catching spotted turtles and painted turtles, but the cherry on top was when he was able to find me a hellbender salamander! This large and elusive salamander is also known as the “snot otter” or “old lasagna sides.” It lives up to its nickname of “snot otter” thanks to the amount of slime it produces when being handled or grabbed. The term lasagna sides refers to the wrinkly folds of skin that run down the side of its body. This helps the hellbender capture oxygen in the quick moving water in which it lives. The hellbender is on the top of many herp nerds’ list of “herps to see in the wild.” It is also a species facing environmental threats and is being studied by herpetologists. Talk about an incredible moment!
In May I spent five days with my turtle family turtling and herping across parts of central Texas. We found everything from narrow-mouthed toads, cliff chirping frogs, broad-banded water snakes to Cagle’s map turtles.
During the start of the hot summer, I traveled to east Texas with buddy Brett Bartek and found southern painted and Sabine map turtles that are only found on that side of the state.
After all that, perhaps the biggest find of the year was discovering juvenile and very old alligator snapping turtles in Tarrant County with Carl Franklin and Andrew Brinker (more on this later also!).
The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) Conference took place in August in Fort Worth. TSA is a nonprofit organization that is, as its website states, “dedicated to zero turtle extinctions” across the globe. This conference is likely the largest assembly of the world’s biggest turtle nerds. I not only presented at the conference but once the conference concluded I took my friend Dr. Shailendra Singh, who is the Director of TSA-India, across as much of Texas as possible. In two days I helped him find 12 species of Texas turtles including all of the Texas endemics and traveled about 710 miles.
Together with Carl Franklin, I presented about Texas turtles for the Cross Timbers Master Naturalists. After that Carl, Andrew Brinker and I traveled to Austin to speak to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. We were there with others to advocate ending the commercial collection of Texas turtles. To our delight, it passed unanimously!
The fall months continued with more herping and turtling. It was a very rainy year so our trapping had to slow down at times due to such high water levels.
Now with these winter days shorter and colder, I spend this time not only reflecting but thinking about many other things relating to ecology and natural history of Texas turtles and herps in general.
“So WHY turtles?”
One question that many of us get asked is, “So WHY turtles?” and “What is your favorite turtle?”
My favorite turtle is any turtle! However, there are a few species that have a special place in my heart. They are not the most flashy, extravagant, or even elusive. One of them is probably the most “common” of our turtles. That common (and neat, to me) turtle is the melanistic male red-eared slider. These melanistic males are so handsome, from the shape of their shell, the color change that happens to the shell, to the darkening and even blackening of their face. I have seen them from chocolate brown, olive green, grayish to completely black. Perhaps my fondness is because this was one of the first turtles I found as a kid. Perhaps I am just curious about when the dark pigments begin to take over and the whole package that comes with them being melanistic. What is the overall function or advantage in them being melanistic? We still have so much more to learn! We see them so frequently it is easy to write them off, saying “Eh more sliders” as we scan the water looking for whichever may be the target species for that day. They are certainly the most requested ID on Texas Turtles Facebook page that is run by Carl Franklin and me. The Facebook page is associated with the Texas Turtles website, a source for lots of information about our native chelonians.
After a day of turtling when I am processing and looking through the turtle pictures from that day, I stop on the images of these “old man” sliders which are fascinating to me. I have made a few observations with these guys here at the end of this year, perhaps I will be able to document and look into them in 2019…..
On to 2019….. Have a turtly awesome New year!