Spotted Turtles in Trouble in Rhode Island

URI doctoral student Scott Buchanan handles a snapping turtle during his research.
URI doctoral student Scott Buchanan handles a snapping turtle during his research.

A University of Rhode Island doctoral student who surveyed the state for freshwater turtles found that the once-common spotted turtle has been hit hard by habitat disturbance.

New Jersey native Scott Buchanan ’17 was working in collaboration with Nancy Karraker, URI associate professor of natural resources science. He repeatedly visited 88 different wetlands in the state over three years and captured nearly 2,000 turtles of four different species. Just 50 were spotted turtles, a species considered by the state to be of high conservation concern and a candidate for the U.S. endangered species list.

“Throughout their range, populations of spotted turtles have declined extensively, and we can certainly say with a good deal of confidence that’s also the case in Rhode Island,” says Buchanan. The turtles, which live in forest wetlands, did best in locations where there’s little human disturbance. But they’re also vulnerable to poaching.

“Spotted turtles will command a formidable sum in the pet trade, which is unfortunate,” Buchanan says, noting that he encountered people during his research who had captured spotted turtles they intended to bring home to keep as pets but released them at his insistence. “It’s really easy for someone to deplete an entire population of them very quickly.”

Buchanan also found a non-native turtle called a red-eared slider in more wetlands than he found spotted turtles. The slider is a species commonly purchased at pet stores and released into the wild after owners no longer wish to care for them. Wetlands close to human populations, especially those with easy access from roads, are the most likely places to find them.

“They’re an especially detrimental invasive species,” he says. “It’s a good bet that all the sliders we found are turtles that were bought at pet stores. We don’t know if they’re reproducing in the wild.”

As Buchanan prepares to graduate from URI, he will share his data with a region-wide team of biologists collecting information about the three turtle species being considered for inclusion on the U.S. endangered species list: spotted, wood and Blanding’s turtles.