Alligator Snapping Turtles: With their heavily armored shells, bear-like claws and powerful beaked jaws, it’s not surprising that these prehistoric-looking turtles have no natural enemies and once thrived throughout the southeastern United States. Early in the 20th century, they were abundant in U.S. river systems draining into the Gulf of Mexico, from the waterways and lakes of the upper Midwest to the swamps and bayous of Florida, Louisiana and Texas. But recent population surveys demonstrate the turtles are now likely extirpated in Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee, with declines up to 95 percent over much their historic range from overharvest and unchecked habitat degradation. These slow-moving, largely sedentary behemoths spend so much of their time sitting on river bottoms waiting for food — they use a wormlike process on their tongue to lure prey — that algae grows thick on their shells. They’re easy prey for hunters who still look to feed thriving world markets for the exhibition and consumption of the turtles.
Wood Turtles: Coveted across much of the world for the colorful red to yellow markings on its neck and legs and the striking geometric growth-line etchings on each of the dark plates that make up its top shell, the wood turtle is considered by many to be the perfect pet. That popularity, from the United States and Europe to Asia, coupled with habitat loss and degradation, has left the wood turtle in serious decline across every state within its range in the northeastern part of the United States. Increasingly hurt by channelization of rivers and streams, careless timber-harvesting practices along waterways, and urbanization and agricultural practices including pesticide use, the turtles’ remaining populations tend to be isolated, greatly reducing the chances of their natural recovery in areas where their numbers have plummeted. Traditionally low survival rates among juvenile wood turtles have been made worse by the prevalence of turtle predators, such as raccoons and skunks, which thrive in urbanized areas. Wood turtles have an unusual feeding behavior: they stomp their front feet to cause earthworms to come to the surface.
Key Ringneck Snakes: These 6-inch-long, nonvenomous residents of the Florida Keys, including Key West and Big Pine Key, could hardly be less of a threat. But the slate-gray snakes with muted neck rings face an ongoing barrage of unmitigated threats to the seaside limestone outcroppings and rockland areas they call home. Largely due to ongoing residential development, the snakes’ rockland hammock habitat has been reduced by 98 percent, leaving highly fragmented population pockets. Hurt not only by ongoing development but also by malicious killing by humans and predation by invasive species like fire ants, Key ringneck snakes face rapid loss across their range. They also face catastrophic threats from climate change, with a sea rise of as little as three feet endangering much of their remaining population. They are listed as threatened in the state of Florida, a status that makes killing and collection illegal but provides no protection from ongoing habitat destruction, the snakes’ greatest threat.
Photo credits: alligator snapping turtle courtesy Gary M. Stolz, USFWS; wood turtle courtesy Diane Baedeker Petit, US Department of Agriculture; key ringsnake copyright Kenneth Krysko.
Read more: amphibians, animal welfare, animals, climate change, economy, endangered, endangered species, endangered species act, environment, environment & wildlife, environmental issues, frogs, global warming, habitat destruction, herpetofauna, herps, invasive species, lizards, politics, pollution, reptiles, salamanders, sea turtles, snakes, toads, tortoises, turtles, u.s. fish and wildlife service, USFWS, wildlife
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