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'Breaking All The Turtle Rules': Spiny Softshell Turtles A Focus Of Protection Efforts In Vermont

Group of turtles piled over each other
Jane Lindholm
/
VPR

The spiny softshell turtle has been on the threatened list in Vermont since 1987. Populations near Lake Champlain have struggled in the last few decades. Some of those struggles are manmade. This segment, VPR's Connor Cyrus checks in with Vermont's Fish and Wildlife Department about the Vermont Eastern Spiny Softshell Recovery Plan and what still needs to be done to protect this species of turtle.

Our guest is: 

  • Toni Mikula, fish and wildlife specialist at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department

Broadcast on Thursday, May 20, 2021; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Connor Cyrus: We're talking about the spiny softshell turtle. How would you describe what they look like to people at home, who maybe have never seen them?

Toni Mikula: The spiny softshell is very different from our other turtle species, and very different from what people usually think of as being a turtle. I always describe them as breaking all the turtle rules.

True to their name, the soft shell doesn't have a hard, bony shell like most other turtles; it's more cartilaginous and somewhat flexible. They're very flat, which makes them streamlined. They're very fast, even on land – I think one on land could probably outrun me! And also on their on their head, they have a pointy nose, almost like a short elephant trunk. It helps them to kind of probe for food in the muck and vegetation.

It's funny because one of my colleagues described the baby softshell turtles as looking like silver dollars, and the adults looking like plates. Is that something that you would describe as accurate?

They're about the size of a silver dollar when they first hatch. Their shell is quite round. I guess, if you imagine a dirty silver dollar with a head and legs, I guess I can kind of see the resemblance.

So my question is: You know, these have been a threatened species in Vermont since 1987. What is it about this particular turtle that got it put on that list? Was the threat manmade? Can you just describe a little bit about how that happened?

So, all turtles have a very slow rate of reproduction. It takes a female softshell turtle about 11 years to reach breeding age. So she has to survive that long before she can even have any hope of replacing herself in the population. And … once they actually do start to lay eggs and try to produce young, they have a very high rate of failure.

So, these turtles are entirely aquatic, but they do have to lay their eggs on land. And spiny soft shells in Vermont are limited to just the northern part of Lake Champlain. So their options for nesting habitat are pretty much the shoreline on the Northeast quadrant of the lake. And they require undisturbed shoreline, so that means, you know, it can't have a seawall or a dock or anything else. And obviously, a lot of the lake shore has been developed in the last 150 years or so, as people build their summer camps and marinas and other infrastructure like that. So, we see that there are fewer and fewer [stretches] of shoreline where they can lay their eggs.

And then … now that you’ve finally found a place to nest, once your eggs are laid, then there's also the threat of them being eaten by a predator. So animals like raccoons and skunks, opossums, they love, love, love turtle eggs. And so … the turtles … they're having to be concentrated on the few remaining available beaches. And that means it's a smorgasbord for any raccoon that happens to find that nesting site. They can dig up and destroy and eat dozens of nests in a single night.

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"The spiny softshell is very different from our other turtle species, and very different from what people usually think of as being a turtle. I always describe them as 'breaking all the turtle rules.'" - Toni Mikula, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department

And so because they're softshells, what are their defenses – in terms of being able to defend against these predators – if they have any? Because, you know, when we think of turtles, we think of the hard-shell ones that obviously have their hard shells to be able to defend against their predators. But what do the softshell turtles have?

Yep. So, when they're young, softshells have camouflage. Their shell is, you know, brownish-tan with some spots on it. And they like to bury themselves in the sediment or the shale at the bottom of the lake. And when they do that, they leave just their shell exposed, and they look just like a pebble.

And I've had tubs of them. When I keep them to try and get them ready to be released into the wild, I'll put them in a little tub with, you know, about an inch of water and some shale. They'll bury themselves down in that shale. And even though I know they're in there, I can't find them because they're so well camouflaged.

And as I mentioned, the adults are very speedy they're actually incredibly fast on the land and in the water. So that's their main defense: camouflage and actually you wouldn’t think of this for a turtle, but swiftness.

Interesting! So I'm curious, you know, I'm reading all about the studies that Fish and Wildlife has done, yourself being a part of these studies. What are you actually studying, in terms of trying to get them as far away from the endangered species list as possible?

So we are trying to boost those reproduction numbers. And I mentioned already, you know how much danger they're in, even once the eggs are laid, they’re at extreme danger of predation.

And so that's where we come in.

We basically know the few nesting sites that they have in the state, and we try to manage the predator abundance there. We put up fencing, we put down kind of a wire mesh on the stones after the nests have been laid, to discourage digging.

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And so how successful has this program been, given that, you know, it's been around for 20 years?

Yeah, and it actually appears to be working. We've seen, you know, a general increase in the number of successful nests in the last 20 years. And I think, you know, the first three years that the project was going on, you know, we had like, less than 20 successful nests every year. Now, you know, it can be upwards of 80, or we've even had close to 101 at a time.

"... The adults are very speedy; they're actually incredibly fast on the land and in the water." - Toni Mikula, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department

So I'm curious, with all of this intervention that's happening, human intervention with these turtles, can they survive on their own? Or is this something that's going to have to be done for, you know, the rest of time?

So our goal is to boost the adult population above a certain number, so that they wouldn't need this kind of help anymore. Whether they'll be able to sustain that that number without intervention is, you know, yet to be seen.

Their primary threats are when they're still an egg, or when they're very young. The small ones, you know, they can be prey for even a bullfrog or a big fish when they're that small. So, it's yet to be seen whether we'll be able to keep these keep their numbers up without this kind of active intervention.

One of the main threats is just the abundance of predators that we have on the landscape right now. Their primary predator animal by far is the raccoon. And raccoons have seen their numbers basically explode in this state in the last 150 years because they actually thrive in the presence of humans, because they're generalists. So they're very adaptable to changes in habitat, and they love to eat people's garbage.

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So what can people at home who are listening to the show right now, what can they do to help the spiny softshell turtles?

Probably the simplest thing that anybody could do to help is to keep the beaches clean. You know, mind your mind your garbage pails; don't litter. Even things like apple cores or banana peels that, you know, you might think, “Oh, it's biodegradable, it's not a big deal if I chuck it in the woods.” But you know, it can become food and support populations of animals like raccoons that might be detrimental to other species.

So, you know, dispose of your garbage properly. Guard your garbage from trash robbers. And also, you know, if you own beachfront property, you can make it turtle-friendly. If you have bushes right against the water, you can remove those or if you have sand or shale, clean off the driftwood and that makes it a nice, tempting place for a female turtle to come up and lay her eggs.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

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