I found two of these in my own backyard and the other one just outside a local park near my house. To be more accurate, my dog found all three of these turtles.
First off is perhaps a familiar sight to many in the US, a box turtle, in this case, specifically, the three-toed box turtle (Terrapene Carolina triunguis)…or wait is an ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata)? I do not know !!!!!
A box turtle, tucking her head and legs back into her shell to avoid the paparazzi.
Box turtles are fairly common here in Missouri. Every April -July they are often seen meandering through neighborhoods or crossing roads, looking for mates and places to lay their eggs. The three-toed box turtle is even the state reptile of Missouri. They are called box turtles because they can tuck their legs and head inside their shell and close up their shell completely. They do this with a hinge on their plastron (the underside part of the shell). In other species of turtles such as the hingeback tortoises of Africa, the hinge is on the carapace (or top part of their shell). This hinge and closing of the shell allows these species to escape predators. Most turtles and tortoises are not able to close their shell completely like these guys, because most do not have hinged shells. Interestingly one turtle has found another way to avoid predators, by squeezing into tight rock crevices.
Check out more on the pancake tortoise here!
The pancake tortoise of east Africa has a light, flexible carapace that is allows it to hide in these places, it also allow them to be lighter than most turtles, and therefor they are quicker than most and are good at climbing. In fact many turtle species are actually good at climbing.
Back to our friend the box turtle. If you find a box turtle with three toes on their hind feet, it’s a good bet its is a three-toed box turtle, other species of box turtles in North America have four toes, as does the ornate….I did not get a good look at this guy so I could not tell. However, some three- toed box turtles actually have four toes, so its not the best trait for identification.
What other traits can I use to distinguish between these two species? Ornate box turtles do not have a raised ridge on their carapace whereas the three-toed does. From this picture I really do not see a ridge on top of the shell, plus the markings look more like an ornate….however, those markings can be deceiving, I have come across three-toed box turtles with pretty elaborate markings on their shell as well. According to this nifty Missouri Department of Conservation video (below), ornates often have a yellow line down their center and 3 toes do not, this guy has a broken yellow line…so leaning I am leaning towards calling it an ornate. Finally this helpful little video says to turn over the turtle…if the plastron is vividly marked with similar lines it is an ornate, the three-toed box turtles have plain plastrons… Alas, had I had this video the time I found this guy, I would have checked the underside, but I did not. So for now I am going with ornate. Box turtles got me all mixed up.
Onto something perhaps a little less hard to identify. My dog found this beauty in our backyard. This is a painted turtle, (Chyrsemys picta). Painted turtles are the one of the most widespread turtle species in North America. At first glance you may be wondering why it is called a painted turtle, often their carapace (top of shell) darkens over age and is an olive brown coloration, but flip the turtle over and you might see a colorful plastron and under edges of the top shell. Not all subspecies will have this colorful bottom shell, some subspecies have just a plain yellow/ brown plastron. But the western painted turtle (which is widespread in Missouri) does. Painted turtles also have lovely yellow lines on their neck, throat and legs. If you see a red spot or stripe on the face of the turtle you might actually be seeing the next turtle the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta ).
Leeloo and her turtle friend, a western painted turtle, notice the drab olive, brown carapace
But then BAM! Underside of a western painted turtle, aren't they pretty!
The painted and red-eared slider are semi-aquatic spending most of their time in rivers and lakes and pond; eating aquatic plants, insects and invertebrates; and basking in the sun on logs. They both have webbed hind feet allowing them to better swim, compared to the box turtle which has adorable stubby feet, better for walking and digging. The red-eared slider is the only turtle in Missouri with a red marking on the head, so this is a good way to identify them if you are in Missouri, if you are on the southeast however, you might need to look at some other traits for a proper identification. That is because the southeastern United States has one of the highest diversities (number of species) of freshwater turtles in the world! Usually tropical areas are thought of as having the highest species diversity, but for some taxa temperate places like North America actually contain the highest diversity. In fact, the southeastern US has some of the highest diversity in freshwater fishes, turtles, salamanders and mussels.
This red-eared slider female (not the red behind the eye) is laying or about to lay eggs, I found her in a shallow muddy depression in the grass, slowing kicking her legs back and forth to move the mud.
Why are turtles and tortoise populations declining?
Sadly, turtles are also highly threatened by human activity. One of the major threats to population declines, is overexploitation by the pet trade (one reason why I am not a fan of keeping herps as pets). We usually think about exotic animals in the pet trade coming from other countries; but North American turtle populations are being decimated by poachers.
North American wood turtles, box turtles, gopher tortoises, diamondback terrapins, spotted turtles and more are highly sought after and poached species in the US to be shipped to other countries. In fact the ubiquitous red-eared slider has become so common in the pet trade, that it is now a highly invasive species outside the US .
Check out the links below for more info on the turtle trade:
On a slightly different but related note, one of the most interesting set of talks I have ever been to at a scientific conference was on the cultural, religious and ecological connectivity of wildlife conservation. It was fascinating. Here is a link to one of the presenters and his story pertaining to a Buddhist tradition of Life Release and turtles in New York City.
Turtles as pets?
I am not a proponent of keeping herps and especially turtles as pets, but I have kept some, I just generally do not seek them out as pets. Herps (lizards, turtles, snakes, salamanders and frogs) require conditions that can be hard to maintain (aquatic turtles are not for the faint of heart), some require special handling, they all require special care, many tortoises and turtles have VERY long lives, and many are often captured from the wild.
But if you feel that a herp is truly the right pet for you, please look into adopting an unwanted one. There are many herp rescues across the nation. Herps Alive is a Reptile Rescue out of Cleveland Ohio, where I obtained my Russian Tortoise. Trust me you will be surprised by what they have and what they “find” just wandering the neighborhood (escaped or abandoned pets). I included the link to their website above, but their facebook page is probably the best way to connect with them.
The New York Turtle and Tortoise Society is another amazing group of individuals helping in the rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife, conservation and public education. Here is a link to a recent article on one of the members in charge of rescue and rehab. https://nypost.com/2020/06/19/meet-the-carole-baskin-of-turtles-who-housed-600-in-nyc-apartment/
More fun links to info on herps in general
If you just want to know more about herps , both in the wild and captivity, what it requires to care for them and what conservation actions are being taken to help them, check out Afroherpkeeper on Instagram he has some really nice educational and FUN videos on herp care and conservation
If you want to go looking for herps from the comfort of your chair check out Afroherper on Instagram, she has a really fun "Find that Lizard" photo challenge.
This month’s Backyard Biodiversity post will be about backyard birds you can identify. I have a lot of “birding” and ornithologist friends, so you might think I was an earlier adopter of birding, but it wasn’t really until I lived in Toledo, Ohio in 2012 that I understood birding. I went to the Biggest Week in American Birding Festival (www.biggestweekinamericanbirding.com/) that is held by the Black Swamp Bird observatory just 40 minutes outside of Toledo, Ohio and on the edge of Lake Erie. The Biggest Week generally occurs around the first weekend of May, this is when thousands of migratory birds make their way up to northwest Ohio. They take a rest before continuing their journey across the Great Lakes and further north to reach their breeding grounds. The stars of this show are the warblers. With over 118 species of New World warblers, 56 or so of these species can be found in North America; and you can see about 20 of these during the Biggest Week, along with a lot of other migratory and non-migratory birds. These small colorful birds would generally only be pursued by birders on a mission as warblers generally do not frequent backyard feeders, but what I like about this event is that it turns normal people into birders, and one reason for this is that the warblers are literally in your face. You walk through Magee Marsh that week and I guarantee you will see these tiny little birds only a few feet away, paying little attention to the paparazzi lining the board walks (you should also check out some of the cameras and gear the people have). Keep in mind that these birds have traveled thousands of miles from their winter grounds in South or Central America and many still have many more miles to go to reach their breeding grounds. Check out some of these articles on warbler migration:
The fact that these tiny, seemingly- fragile creatures can fly so far two times a year is mind blowing. Regardless of your birding experience I would highly recommend you make it up to this festival one of these days.
Now the rest of this post will not be about warblers, these little guys do not come to bird feeders – at least not mine, but as bird migration is going on I thought it would be a good time to get to look at migratory and non-migrant birds that I find in my backyard. Furthermore I have had more time to check out my feeders during this pandemic, and so I have been practicing my wildlife photography. Backyard birds are probably one of the best ways to get into wildlife photography, you can attract the birds to you, you can position yourself so that you can get good close-up shots, and you have plenty of opportunity to learn how to take better photos as the parade of birds is non-stop.
Here in the Midwest the Northern Cardinal is a reliable and easily distinguishable bird, also gorgeous. These are year-round residents, so you will see them in the winter.
I have several pairs of cardinals that hang out near my yard including one pair that is building a nest under the eaves of my house.
The American Goldfinch, also a year-round resident in Missouri, also gorgeous. The males are a glorious bright yellow with a black cap, but both of these traits fade when it is not breeding season, so you may not recognize them during the rest of the year. They will usually feed in small groups or flocks. They also like to make a lot of noise.
The White-Breasted Nuthatch is a fun one. I like how the hop around the tree trunks and branches. These guys will also store seeds for later in the winter, hiding the seeds in the bark of trees.
The Tufted Titmouse, also a resident, these guys are fun to watch, they are acrobatic and will hang from the end of branches and just act goofy.
The Black-Capped Chickadee, is a resident bird in Missouri and can often be seen in groups. Many other bird species will also hang out with a chickadee flock, using the chickadee alarm calls to help warn them of predators near-by. I like this pic, the bird just jumped down from the branch, the bird is out of focus, but the forefront twigs are nice and sharp!
The Eastern Bluebird is Missouri’s state bird. I use dried meal worms to attract these and have been lucky to have a family or two of bluebirds nearby, so I will see them come by every day, even during the winter.
The House Finch is also a resident bird in Missouri. Interestingly they are originally from the western part of the US, but were introduced into the east in the 1940’s.
Now onto some migratory birds that I can see this time of year.
It would not be a Missouri spring and summer without the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. OK so not the best picture, I am working on getting one with better light to show off their magnificence. See, plenty of opportunity to improve your photography skills. These birds winter in parts of Mexico and Central American, but spend the summer up here and in Canada.
The Swainson’s Thrush is migratory, with Missouri being just a stop through on its way to its breeding grounds further north into Canada, in fact I saw one a year ago in Alaska. Thrushes have somewhat ethereal calls that trail off into flute like fairy tweets, like trickling water, its quite charming. I did not hear this one call, but I have, according to my ornithologist neighbor and friend a wood thrush in my backyard as well and he sings every evening.
The Chipping Sparrow is a summer resident of Missouri meaning it migrates up to Missouri for the summer breeding season, they winter in southern US and Mexico. We had a flock of these devour our bird seed during March and April, they are pretty cute with the reddish little caps and white eye streaks. I have not seen them since, so they may have moved further north.
Check out Cornell’s site https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/ for more info and ID’ig help on all the cool birds.
Besides the Biggest Week in American Birding, each year around this time is the Global Big Day…this year its May 9....which is like tomorrow. A day to go out and count as many bird species as you can. So get out there, or at least set up some bird feeders and watch!
I am such a liar, OK, I am posting a pic of a frog. This little guy was found in early April in my back yard. This is a gray treefrog. Here in Missouri they have just started calling, but they are still way up in the trees and the males are just warming up their vocal chords. They have a warbley trill call. We have two species here in Missouri, Hyla versicolor and Hyla chyrsoscelis. They cannot be told apart by appearance or morphology. Instead you can tell them apart by their calls. Why is that and what do they sound like? Well that will be for a later time. Full gray trefrog chorusing at breeding ponds will not start up for them until May or so, with summer being their peak calling period. By then we should also be hearing my other favorite call (what does that make it now 3 favorite calls??), that of the Cricket frog (Acris crepitans). Cricket frog calls sound like the banging together of two marbles or stones together. It is one of my favorites, because it was the first call that I was able to learn and easily recognize which species it belonged to.
OK, so if you live in Florida…. you might come across these critters that we did while taking a short trip there this past January.
First off, we have our dog Leeloo, checking to see if there are any alligators in the vicinity. Depending on your preference for such reptilian encounters you may or may not want to come across one. We did not see any at Manatee State Park, but it was a little chilly for them. American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) are native to the southeastern U.S. found from parts of North Carolina to Texas. Alligators are in the Alligatoridae family and are members of the order Crocodillia with species that range in size from as small as 3 feet up to 23 feet. The American Crocodile can reach up to 12 ft. Crocodilians are excellent swimmers and though not as great at moving on land, they can be quite quick. Always good to be aware of them if you are in crocodilian territory. One of my favorite things about alligators is their vocalizations and parental care. Most mama crocodilians will guard their nests and then move the hatchlings into the water by tenderly carrying them in their mouth. The hatchlings may stick around with the mama for up to one or two years as well. Adult alligators make a variety of sounds (https://www.nps.gov/subjects/sound/sounds-alligator.htm) from groans and grunts to hisses and even infrasound. Young are believed to communicate with one another while still in their eggs in the nest. It is believed that this might help them hatch at the same time. Once hatched they will make several sounds drawing their mama’s attention to help them. American alligators can be distinguished from their large cousin the saltwater crocodiles by their broader rounder snout (https://www.livescience.com/32144-whats-the-difference-between-alligators-and-crocodiles.html; https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/reptiles/a/american-alligator/; https://www.nps.gov/ever/learn/nature/alligator.htm)
We also got to see about a dozen manatees at Manatee State Park. There are 3 known living species of manatees, the Amazonian manatee, the West Africa manatee and the West Indian (or American) manatee (Trichechus manatus). It is the latter that is found in Florida and the southeastern US, as well as the Caribbean, Mexico and parts of South America. These large aquatic mammals can get up to 14 feet long and weigh over 3000 lbs. Although generally not fast swimmers, they prefer to lounge around eating sea grass, they do have large strong tails that help them swim. They can swim up to 15 mph if need be. Manatees are usually solo swimmers, but in the wintertime, they congregate and move closer inland to warm springs in Florida rivers to help keep warm. During the warmer months however, they move out and can be found as far north as Massachusetts. Manatees are US federally protected. With about 13,000 across the range. Boat collisions are a major cause of death and injury to manatees. Boater awareness and education along with protecting important habitat has led an increase in numbers over the past decades. In 1971 where there were an estimated 1,267 manatees in Florida, but today more than 6,300 are believed to be found in Florida, a substantial increase. Going to show that conservation DOES WORK! (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/group/manatees/; https://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/mammals/manatee)
We did come across a large congregation of turkey and black vultures at Manatee State Park as well! It was cool to see so many roosting in one place. We saw lots of cool birds in Florida, so I will do a post on them another time.
During our stay we took a kayak tour near Fort De Soto. We got to see this neat mollusk. I am not sure whether it is a whelk or a conch. Our guide said it was a whelk and that is what I am leaning towards based off the flat spiral on top of the shell, but alas I am not a mollusk expert. Most people are familiar with these creatures just from the shells that they find washed up on the beach, so it was neat to get to see an actual live one. The black part in the middle of the white shell opening is the foot of the animal. Whelks are actually snails and belong in the phylum of Mollusca (or mollusks) with other snails and slugs-mollusks that lost their shell, as well as bivalves (like the mussels from last month’s post) and …..cephalopods – which include octopus and squid. Mollusca has to be one of my favorite phyla due to the diverse types of animals that it contains form the lowly garden snail to the might giant squid. One characteristic that all mollusks share is the mantle, which is a portion of their body that covers their dorsal or back side and covers their internal organs. It also is the part that secretes the material for the formation of their shell. For slugs and others that do not have a shell, they still maintain a mantle. The foots of mollusks are muscular appendages that are used for locomotion - crawling, digging into substrate or propulsion (squid and nuatilus). Or in the case of this marine mollusk that we found - used for protection - to close up its shell and keep us from getting an even closer look! (http://oceanicresearch.org/education/wonders/mollusk.html; http://www.molluscs.at/mollusca/index.html?/mollusca/shell.html)
While on our kayak adventure we were also accompanied by cormorants (see the above bird). Again, I will have to do a separate post about all the neat bird life in Florida. But for now I will leave you with this science tip!
Four Mucket mussels being used in an eDNA shedding experiment
So I haven't been keeping up with posts (since last year....). Here I will attempt to at least make a backyard biodiversity post once a month ... this one is supposed to be January's so as you can see, I am still behind....so lets get started.
At work we are currently developing environmental DNA detection methods for freshwater mussels.
What are freshwater mussels and why are we interested in them? You are probably familiar with oysters or scallops or blue mussels found in the salty waters of costal areas, but there is also a large group of these bivalve animals that are found in freshwaters such as lakes and rivers. There are many groups of mussels that live in freshwater, and several families of these are found in the United States and North America. For today’s post however I am focusing on the mussels found in the taxonomic order Unionida or Unionids for short (though that is really not any shorter). Unionids are found worldwide in freshwater ecosystems. But what makes them so neat is that they are one of the few groups of animals (along with salamanders and a few other things) that have their highest diversity in terms of number of species, in the temperate regions of the world, such as in North America, as opposed to the tropics.
Unionid mussels burrow partially into the substrate of the river pumping water through openings in their body and filtering out phytoplankton and other small, microscopic organisms in the water. The soft tissue of these animals that contains their organs are enclosed in a shells made of two halves or “valves” (thus the name bivalve). The shell develops from material secreted by the soft body tissue and the two halves are connected together by a ligament tissue. Unlike other mussels which attach themselves to the substrate with fibrous threads called byssal, Unionids have a muscular foot that allows them to move through the substrate and dig down.
Unionids also have a special way of reproducing. After males spawn and the released sperm is taken up by the female, tiny baby mussels or larvae called glochidea develop. The female releases these larvae onto a host fish, where the little bivalves clamp on to the fish’s gills and parasitically live on the fish until they reach a large enough size to live on their own. Then they fall off the fish and are now free living mussels, now capable of filtering water to obtain their microscopic food, rather than living off of the fish. If this wasn't cool enough some species have elaborate ways to entice their host fish. Females of some species have specialized tissue lures that can trick a fish into thinking it is a tasty bit of worm or fish, thus drawing the predatory fish nearby, at which point the mussels can catch the fish in its shell and inoculates the fish with the baby mussel larvae. The fish is then let go and is left to unknowingly help feed the baby mussels. (Check out this video, it is amazing!
Freshwater mussels unfortunately are in danger of extinction. In fact 88 of the 298 describes species in North America are currently listed as federally endangered or threatened in the U.S. Because of their aquatic lifestyle and the fact that they filter water removing detritus, pathogens, and pollution from our drinking water, they are good indicators of water quality. It has been estimated that an adult mussel can filter 15 gallons of water a day. Their aquatic lifestyle, however, also makes them more prone to water pollution. Chemical spills in water ways can kill off healthy mussel’s beds and chronic water pollution can stress mussel populations, making them more susceptible to disease or other stressors. Other stressors are also suggested for reasons why populations appear to be declining, including a warming climate, changes to the water flow in a stream that may be caused by a dam, and loss of a host fish species. Recently large mussel declines have been observed, biologists are still trying to understand the cause.
Given their incredible diversity in form, unique natural history and importance to cleaning our waters we should all give Unionids a second look and help them out. Check out some more links:
Well its been nearly 2 months since I last posted. Apparently teaching a class in addition to a full time job, while starting a large research project, takes up quite a bit of time. Also it being winter it has been a bit hard finding biodiversity, so here are some pics of traces of biodiversity. I know critters are around, they are just harder to see and come by.
The top pic is of some white-tail deer poop and the bottom pic is of some squirrel poop. I was actually pretty excited to see the squirrel poop, for all the years that my bird feeders have become squirrel feeders, I never really came across squirrel poop, until last month!
A lot can be learned from scat, the scientific word for poop. Most interestingly for me is the ability to extract DNA from scat , so that conservation geneticists can learn about a species they are studying. Plus, as we found in some of our work the amount of DNA released by fish, that can be picked up by environmental DNA (eDNA) methods , varies with how much the eat....and thus....poop.
This weeks Backyard Biodiversity post is...no not me...and not my dog, whose nose you can see....., it is something you cannot see....its the cold virus. Don't let my smile fool you. I feel crappy! Thanks cold #virus! Viruses, are they a life form or not? That's the big debate. They have #DNA or other genetic material and can reproduce, but they do not have a cellular structure and have no metabolism, instead they take over MY cells and use MY cells' metabolism to create more of themselves, disgusting but genius. Meanwhile I feel crappy and my dog wonders why I am not out playing with her. I'd write more about them, but I don't feel much up to it, maybe when I get over this cold.
Again, I have surprised myself in finding winter biodiversity....or at least that which I can take a relatively decent camera phone picture of. This weeks post is the American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos, a highly social and adaptable bird found throughout most of the U.S., with the exception of the desert southwest. During the winter crows will get together in large communal roosts, however, they continue to defend their territory where they spend the rest of the year. Family groups are common, with young crows helping their parent raise the young of that year. Crows are crafty and intelligent, making and using tools to get food. Check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for more bird facts and information. For more info on bird intelligence check out: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/year-of-the-bird-brains-intelligence-smarts.
I though it might be a bit tough to come up with a #backyardbiodiversity post for each week during the winter. But look what the cat dragged in....not literally. There has been a mouse in our house for the past month, and live traps did not get him. My cat Marm is more interested in the chase rather than the capture, but she is a good mouse tracker, I could always tell when the mouse was out and about. Well on Monday the mouse ran out from underneath the oven and into one of our small bedrooms and Marm followed. After securing the facilities, I was able to trick the mouse into running into a cardboard box and quickly covered the top. I then released him into the woods out behind our house, and I've been leaving a pile of sunflower seeds near the release site, hoping he decides to stay outside.
I ID'd him as a deermouse with the help of iNaturalist, it was either a deermouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) or a white-footed mouse (P. leucopus). The pics were not good enough to discern the coloration on the tail for a better ID. Both species are common and found throughout North America. According to the internet (sorry not my best lit search skills today) there are either 56 subspecies or 56 species of deermice in North America, either way that's a lot of variation.
How do scientist determine a subspecies versus a species? Ha ha, that discussion is for another post.
As a side note, my pics for this backyard biodiversity series are supposed to be mostly from my phone camera. I aim to get as good of a picture as I can which can be quite tricky not using a regular camera. The close up pics of this mouse are OK, but not as in focus as I would like. And the subjects are any species that I find during my usual wanderings (either at home or in town).
I've been moving all my old laptop computer files to a new desktop, including my old iphoto libraries. Moving from a mac to a pc. Now I am going through all my photos from > 10 years ago to present....yowsers the memories....most of them good :)
It also give me an excuse because I'm trying to look for a good photo of myself in the field, doing fieldy things b/c I am teaching a class this semester and wanted to share.
I haven't found one yet, but here is a super adorable pic of my cat marmalade with a ruffle on, looking like the lion she is, and George Schaller's lions (see book behind her).