By Matt Dhillon
Bog turtles are easy to miss. The slate-black reptile with an orange patch on either side of its neck could fit easily in a human palm or under a maple leaf. Adults typically measure between 3 and 4 inches across the shell, making bog turtles North America’s smallest turtle.
Yet this humble recluse may prove to be a hinge for conservation efforts. A petition filed by the nonprofit advocacy organization Center for Biological Diversity to list the southern population of bog turtles as endangered is currently under consideration by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The species has two distinct populations, one in Northern Appalachia and one in Southern Appalachia. If approved, the decision would afford protections not just to the turtle itself, but to the rare mountain bogs that are its home.
“The wildlife and plant communities that are in [these bogs] are really rare and unique,” says Gabrielle Grater, a conservation biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. “There are a lot of plants and animals that only live in those wetlands.”
Some of those unique plants include the purple pitcher plant, mountain sweet pitcher plant, bunched arrowhead and pink lady’s slippers.
“So you have a lot of biodiversity within a single, very small wetland,” Grater says. “And biodiversity is important for lots of reasons, but one of them being that when you start to remove pieces from this web of life, it becomes a weaker and weaker thing to where you can start to have issues that happen. You know, things that you hear about happening with honey bees and pollinators.”
Bog turtles spend most of their lives, which can span up to 50 years, in these swampy wetlands sunning on tussocks of sedge, hiding from predators under foliage, and browsing for seeds and small insects.
“They’re definitely eating more on the animal side than on the plant side,” Grater says. “When [researchers have] seen stomach contents of bog turtles, they’ve seen seeds, they’ve seen berries, things like that, but a lot of what they’re eating are beetles and slugs, snails, whatever they basically come by that’s in the mud or on the surface.”
They also burrow in the thick mud and spongy sphagnum moss that is essential to prevent them from freezing in winter.
The loss of mountain bogs is the primary cause of the bog turtle’s decline, according to the petition. These wetlands are among the most imperiled habitats in Southern Appalachia. According to The Nature Conservancy, only 500 acres of mountain bogland remain in North Carolina. The petition states that only 1,200 total acres remain in the turtle’s southern range, which includes the mountains in Southwest Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Northeast Georgia. Though these bogs are crucial to absorbing, storing and filtering water, the importance of these mountain wetlands has often been overlooked.
“They’re rare to begin with,” says Will Harlan, the petition’s author and a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, “and then farmers or developers or landowners often think they’re just wasted space. It’s just wet boggy muddy places where they can’t build things, where they can’t grow things.”
Over the past 100 years, 90% of mountain bogs in Southern Appalachia have disappeared, the petition states. Bog turtle populations have declined proportionally. In the past 20 years, the population has dropped by 50%. Now few refuges remain in the species’ southern range.
“There are 223 historical records of bog turtles in the South,” says Harlan. “So that means over the past century [biologists have] observed them in 223 places. Now, we can find them in only 14. So they’ve experienced a 90% decline in the past century.”
The petition estimates that fewer than 2,000 bog turtles remain of the southern population.
Habitat loss is a major reason for this decline, but it is not the only threat bog turtles are facing. Out of the five factors that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers under the Endangered Species Act, the petition asserts that bog turtles are threatened in all five categories.
Poaching for illegal pet trade has also taken a significant toll on bog turtles and contributed to the northern population being listed as federally threatened in 1997. The southern population was not protected but it was made illegal to collect them because of the similarity in their appearance. Rare turtles are the fourth-largest source of wildlife sold globally on the black market, the petition states, and because the species reproduces so slowly, poaching can easily eliminate them from an entire site.
Development near bog turtle habitat is also a threat. Hard surfaces like asphalt increase stormwater runoff, while ditching and irrigation can drain the wetland. More food from human waste can increase pressure from predators like racoons or possums and where ecosystems are disturbed, invasive species can find an opening.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed their initial review of the petition in October 2022, deciding that the southern population of bog turtles may warrant listing as endangered.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service, I think, tentatively agreed that all 5 of these factors were met in its ‘may warrant’ decision,” Harlan says.
The next phase is a 12-month investigation by the Fish and Wildlife Service into the threats facing the species before determining whether or not to list it as endangered.
“The biologists we’ve talked to are unanimously in support of a bog turtle listing, so the scientific consensus is pretty clear,” Harlan says.
If granted protection under the Endangered Species Act, bog turtles would receive critical habitat protection, meaning that the remaining 1,200 acres of mountain bogs would be shielded from development or, if any development were to happen, it would have to take into consideration what impact it might have on the protected habitat. However, that won’t necessarily save the bog turtle.
“Just because it’s listed doesn’t necessarily guarantee it’s going to recover” Harlan says. “That also takes a lot of on-the-ground work and adequate funding.”
For bog turtles, time is a factor.
“[The investigation period] is supposed to take 12 months,” Harlan says. “The average is 9 to 10 years. So it could be a decade before this species sees permanent protection and we could lose the bog turtle in that time.”
That loss would be significant. As Grater points out, all life is intrinsically valuable, but all life is also part of a larger system. The loss of the bog turtle would also mean losing a piece of the diminishing mountain bog.
● The average bog turtle lifespan is 20 to 30 years, but it can live up to 50. The oldest bog turtle ever recorded lived 61 years.
● The largest bog turtle ever recorded was 4.5 inches in shell length.
● There is a 250-mile gap between the northern and southern bog turtle populations that spans West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. Scientists are not certain why the two populations separated.
● Bog turtles are slow to reproduce. A female usually lays 3 to 4 eggs in a clutch between April and July. The eggs take between 42 and 80 days to hatch and are extremely vulnerable during that time.
● Bog turtles share their habitat with some interesting plants. The purple pitcher plant and the mountain sweet pitcher plant are both carnivorous plants. The Pink Lady Slipper is an orchid and relies on a symbiotic relationship with fungi to gather nutrients. Sphagnum moss is spongy and can hold up to 26 times its weight in water.