Now, helping to conserve turtles can be as easy as a walk in the park. The reptiles are in decline in the Northeast because of habitat fragmentation from new roads and homes. To save them, scientists need a better understanding of their distribution and range. That’s where a new initiative called the Turtle Atlas (turtleatlas.org) comes in: Researchers are recruiting everyday citizens to report turtle sightings — from back yards to roadsides — in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Contributing to the Turtle Atlas is easy: Participants sign up online, read the training manual, and then log in to upload photos and enter locations of sightings. Observations are sent to the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

The Turtle Atlas is just one of many online projects that use citizens to track animals. Others include Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch for counting birds, and the University of Illinois’ BeeSpotter for tracking poorly documented wild bee populations.

So far, Turtle Atlas volunteers have entered about 450 sightings of ten different species over a two-year period. “The records we get from the public help to drive our conservation efforts,” says Lori Erb, a turtle biologist at NHESP. “We need to know where the turtles are in order to protect them.” 

Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008. This story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008