A good day for Davidson College biologist Jackie Guzy is splashing around a muddy wetland, no matter what interesting creatures she may find.
Its a great day if she spots a bog turtle one of the worlds smallest and rarest. But what recently happened in a Gaston County wetland was cause for extreme jubilation: Guzy plucked two baby bog turtles out of the mud in the same month.
For years, researchers had known the small, brightly marked turtles were at the site, a Catawba Lands Conservancy preserve. However, the population of about 45 had declined to about 15 and these turtles numbered and found over and over were at least 20 years old and possibly 50 or 60 years. Scientists feared the bog turtles at the once-thriving haven might all die.
Guzys discovery of 1-year-old and 3-year-old turtles proves theres new blood in the bog and hope for the future.
When I found the turtles I screamed for joy and jumped up and down, said Guzy, 29, a research scientist and turtle project manager at Davidsons biology department. It was a big hullabaloo. I was really, really thrilled.
Bog turtles have been listed by the federal government as threatened since 1997 and have endangered status in some states, including North Carolina.
The turtles are legally protected or regulated in all states where they are found. But Guzy said in North Carolina the regulations dont protect habitat and thats why finding the turtles successfully reproducing on conserved property is such a big deal.
Bog turtles were first spotted on the Gaston County preserve in 1991. Since 2006, researchers and students of the Davidson College Herpetology Laboratory have studied the sites turtle population one of the few in the Piedmont. This year, a Williams-Transco grant has allowed a more intensive study.
Students from Michael Dorcas Herpetology Laboratory class spent many hours probing through the mud in a process he calls looking for a needle in a haystack.
North Carolina has about a dozen to 15 kinds of turtles from red bellies, sliders and cooters to soft shell, eastern box and snapping turtles.
A little Piedmont treasure
The mud-wallowing bog turtle is special. But life is fragile for the tiny creature.
Dorcas said its North Americas smallest turtle, with a maximum length of 4 to 5 inches. The turtles bear distinctive marks on their faces: large yellow or orange splotches.
As their name implies, bog turtles need a specific habitat a muddy wetland with an open canopy. Unfortunately, Dorcas said, these ecosystems are disappearing in urban and agriculture development around the Piedmont.
And bog turtles have another problem: Theyre worth big bucks on the black market, Dorcas said.
Domestic and international collectors fork out $400 to $2,000 for nice specimens.
Dorcas thinks discovering a rare species reproducing at the Gaston site is cause for excitement. In the future, researchers will look at similar habitats nearby, hoping to uncover new populations.
Very few places in the world have this unique animal, he said. That in itself is reason to get excited. They are part of North Carolinas natural heritage and this is an effort to preserve them.
The Charlotte-based Catawba Lands Conservancy protects 12,453 acres in surrounding counties, including 4,495 acres in Gaston. The 14.6-acre site where the bog turtles live is fairly close to an urban setting, but is still on an active farm.
The wooded location has not been disclosed to protect the turtles, said Sharon Wilson, the conservancys land stewardship director.
If you rode by youd never give it a second glance, she said. But we think its an interesting place an unusual place.
The site offers the perfect mix of what bog turtles like: a bog with lots of mud; some shade; an open meadow; and root systems for hanging out when theyre out of the mud.
Habitat improvements, including the elimination of invasive plants, has taken place over the years.
The turtle preservation effort is a partnership that includes the conservancy, Davidson College Herpetology Lab, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and Williams-Transco.
A little group of folks has taken this place under their wing, Wilson said. Its a little Piedmont treasure.
Expect to get muddy
Early one morning last week, Guzy and Davidson students George Schaaf and Chandler Gray arrived at the Gaston County wetland for a day of what she called bog-turtling.
Wearing hip-wader boots, she headed out with a big wooden stick for probing.
A cow herd squishing along a soggy path watched from the nearby woods.
In the bog, expect to get muddy, Guzy said. And not find anything. Its not like turtles are a dime a dozen.
As she taps around for hours, she may feel a thump, and thrust her hand into the muck to find out whats there.
A rock, a log, or another kind of turtle: You never know what you going to find, Guzy said.
This wasnt a normal day: in the first five minutes, she found an older bog turtle and the same 3-year-old that turned up in May.
All the discoveries made her hopeful.
Its pretty awesome to find these little guys, Guzy said. Totally great. It means bog turtles can hang on a little bit longer.