Development and poaching erasing years of work to protect wood turtles in Virginia

Wood turtles display a unique orange coloration on their neck and limbs making them attractive...
Wood turtles display a unique orange coloration on their neck and limbs making them attractive in the illegal pet trade.(J.D. Kleopfer)
Published: May. 23, 2022 at 7:12 AM EDT
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Human development and poaching are erasing years of conservation work to protect wood turtles in Virginia.

Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute are searching for the few remaining wood turtles still found east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but low population densities combined with the cryptic behavior of wood turtles make finding them a challenge.

It turns out that finding a wood turtle’s DNA can be almost as useful as finding the real thing. Field researchers collect water samples each spring and fall from streams that could potentially contain traces of wood turtle eDNA or environmental DNA.

The samples are processed at the Smithsonian Center for Conservation Genomics, and within a matter of weeks, geneticists can tell whether wood turtle eDNA was detected within each sample.

The information can be used as a form of surveillance that is almost as effective as traditional visual encounter surveys and significantly cheaper, said Tom Akre, program scientist at the Conservation Ecology Center at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

The Smithsonian will pass its survey results directly to county planners in Virginia to give them a better handle on where wood turtle populations are and what kind of threats they might be facing, said Jonathan Drescher-Lehman, eDNA researcher for the Smithsonian’s wood turtle surveys.

Wood turtles are disappearing quickly from their native range in northern Virginia because of a wide range of threats. “With wood turtles and a lot of turtles in general, there’s not just one single smoking gun that you can address,” said J.D. Kleopfer, Virginia’s state herpetologist.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

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