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The following is a guest essay by Gabrielle “Gabby” Call. Gabby is a Program Manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Tennessee Chapter, where she started her conservation career in 1993. Gabby’s current projects include wetlands restoration and mitigation banking in Tennessee’s Southern Appalachian Mountains, where rare mountain bog ecosystems shelter a trove of unusual plants and animals. Prior to her position in the mountains, Gabby served a number of roles for the Tennessee Chapter, including government relations director and stewardship/land management. Gabby holds a B.S. degree in Forestry & Wildlife from Virginia Tech, class of 1992. Outside of work, her interests include local food initiatives, cooking, hiking and keeping chickens.

“We’re just not finding any turtles. They’ve left, they’re just not there,” my co-worker announced.

Ten years ago, this news would have stopped my heart. Bog turtles have so many forces threatening their wise, plodding ways: cow hooves, reptile poachers, tractors, farm dogs, car tires and a variety of egg-munching varmints. These are the dangers that keep bog turtle stewards like me awake at night.

It’s easy to become enamored with bog turtles. Tiny, almost graceful creatures, they weigh only about four ounces full-grown and sport gorgeous, flame-colored “ear spots” on their heads. They have a wise look about them, and in fact may live to be well over 50 years old. They have persisted in Shady Valley and elsewhere in the Northern and Southern Appalachian Mountains for many hundreds of thousands of years.

And bog turtles are rare. They are listed as “threatened” on the federal Endangered Species list. In Shady Valley, there are probably fewer than 100 turtles still alive. Our conservation team wants that number to be much higher, and we have been working steadily to accomplish this.

I stared at my co-worker (I think my mouth had fallen open). Our plan is working! The Conservancy has been busy reclaiming and restoring streams and wetlands around the bog turtles’ tiny patches of habitat, gradually enlarging their wetland habitat. They had been stranded for decades in a sea of roads and swampy farmland; we have expanded their safe haven. We want them to leave, to spread out, to take advantage of the 240 acres of wetland preserves we have cobbled together. 

Gabby Call holds a bog turtle.

Gabby Call holds a bog turtle. (Photo: Wendy Buntin)

So my colleague’s statement does not cause me angst. It reaffirms our dreams for this charismatic animal that begin fresh with each new spring. When March’s first warm winds blow, the bog turtles stir deep in their frigid hibernation holes, responding mysteriously to unseen light and unfelt temperatures far above their heads. It’s time to come up and make their tiny paths, battle their rivals, find their mates, and survive (hopefully) for another year. We attach radio transmitters to about 10 percent of the turtle population and track them for six months, year after year, trying to understand what they want and need.

Only time, and more field data, will tell. Studying long-lived turtles does not yield overnight results. 2011 is the 26th straight year of the Shady Valley bog turtle research project. Some turtles could migrate out of the Conservancy’s protected zones and crawl obliviously into permanent Missing In Action status. Or, we could discover a previously unknown colony, as was the case a few years back. We could find female turtles swelling with eggs. We could find a wrecked nest strewn with crushed eggshells. Our team endures a roller coaster of small victories and heartaches each field season.

But even if we haven’t found turtles yet, the bog turtle season is young, and we believe they’re out there, making a break for it. We’ll find them. Our turtles on the lam fill me with hope.

—Text by Gabby CallCool Green Science Blog