Alabama Red-Bellied Turtle Gets Added Protection
By DAVID RAINER
The Alabama red-bellied turtle recently received a significant boost in the effort to protect the endangered species with the erection of a fence along the Causeway by the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT).
ALDOT christened the 3.4-mile low barrier fence recently at 5 Rivers – Alabama’s Delta Resource Center, which sits smack dab in the middle of prime habitat for the turtle, Alabama’s official state reptile.
Tony Harris of ALDOT said the construction of the fence augments an older fence along the Causeway and other fences erected by volunteer groups. The fences are designed to keep the red-bellied turtle from being hit by vehicles as it tries to cross the four lanes of the Causeway.
“I’m very proud to say ALDOT funded and built the new portion of the fence,” Harris said. “It was concentrated at key points along the Causeway, particularly the Blakeley and Appalachee rivers and Chacaloochie Bay (a.k.a. Chocalotta Bay).
“From its inception, the effort to protect Alabama’s red-bellied turtle has been a true partnership. ALDOT was joined by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and State Lands divisions, as well as the University of South Alabama and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And we must not forget The Nature Conservancy, which was one of the first champions of this cause.”
Roger Clay, wildlife biologist with Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, said the large freshwater turtle’s restricted range makes it especially vulnerable.
“In fact, it has one of the more restricted ranges of any turtle in the United States,” Clay said. “It’s only found in four counties along the Gulf Coast – Mobile and Baldwin counties in Alabama and Harrison and Jackson counties in Mississippi. It’s mainly found in the lower reaches of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.”
Clay said red-bellied turtle females grow to a maximum of about 14 inches, while males are slightly smaller at maturity at about 12 inches. Clay said a typical adult red-bellied turtle has an olive-covered carapace likely covered in algae or other aquatic plant material. Although it is called a red-bellied turtle, Clay said adults often lose the red coloration and are shades of orange and yellow on the bottom of the shell.
The red-bellied turtles, which were added to the endangered species list in 1987, are primarily herbivorous, eating aquatic vegetation available near the Causeway in the shallow bays and rivers. The nesting peak is May and June with some activity continuing into July.
“When the female turtles come out of the water looking for nesting areas, they can cross the Causeway and that’s when they are vulnerable to being struck by vehicles,” Clay said. “Their preferred nesting areas are on the higher ground along the Causeway and the turtles are particularly attracted to spoil areas and banks like the north end of Gravine Island.
“The good thing about most of the Alabama red-bellied turtle’s range in Mobile and Baldwin counties is that it’s under public ownership – about 100,000 acres comprised of three Wildlife Management Areas, where the land is managed for the red-bellied turtle and all wildlife.”
Clay said vehicles traveling the Causeway are not the only risk factors for the turtles. Red-bellied turtles face threats before they even emerge from their nests. Animals like raccoons, fish crows, herons, feral hogs and alligators prey on eggs and hatchlings. The female builds a nest with around a dozen eggs and hatchlings emerge from the nests 70 or more days later. Some hatchlings remain in the nest and do not emerge until the following spring.
The hatchlings then head for water, and sometimes that route takes them across the Causeway.
Dr. David Nelson, an associate professor of biology at the University of South Alabama, has been working with and studying the red-bellied turtle for the past 15 years.
“My students and I have done a variety of studies on aspects of geographic distribution, movement, diet, nesting and mortality,” Nelson said. “Each year, from riding the roads, we know there are from 14 to 20 adult females hit on the side of the road. It was somewhat disturbing to see this happen to an endangered species, so we began to do weekly road-kill surveys. We wanted to know how many turtles were being hit and when and why.”
Nelson concluded that a fence needed to be built to keep the turtles off the road. Beginning in 2007, the effort was made through the aforementioned groups to contact ALDOT about a fence to complement 1,400 feet of fencing erected by volunteers along the Blakeley and Appalachee rivers. ALDOT agreed to build the fence at a cost of $145,000.
Nelson said the benefits of the new fences have been obvious. Fifteen adult turtles were hit in 2007, while the number dropped to nine this year. For hatchlings that emerged in March and April, there were 94 individuals hit in 2007. This year, 19 were hit, a reduction of 80 percent.
“That is a significant change,” Nelson said. “The fence is working in reducing turtle mortality. The lesson of ecology is that we are all undeniably interconnected to the animals, the plants and the habitat in the wondrous world in which we live. Our natural resources continue to decline because of degrading habitat. We desperately need to exercise responsible environmental stewardship at the federal, state and personal levels. And what a great example this is. We in south Alabama are privileged to enjoy a unique and priceless jewel in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
“At a time when so much is going so badly, all over the world, it is gratifying to experience something done well.”
Hank Burch, manager of 5 Rivers, said the State Lands Division facility has followed ALDOT’s lead and erected a fence to keep the turtles off the two-lane boulevard that runs through the 5 Rivers property.
“We get a lot of mileage out of this turtle, I’ll be quite honest with you,” Burch said. “We host a great deal of school groups at 5 Rivers. When spring is coming around and the turtles are hatching, you can walk around and see the hatchlings and the shell casings where they have just emerged. That engages the kids, and they’re the ones who will carry this mission forward.”
Harris also added that in addition to the fence, ALDOT is conducting an awareness program to alert drivers about the turtle’s nesting and hatching seasons. Banners will be erected along the Causeway telling motorists – “Alabama’s Red-Bellied Turtles Need a Brake.”
PHOTOS: Alabama red-bellied turtles, both adult females and hatchlings, are susceptible to being struck by automobiles along the four lanes of the Causeway.