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What the Shell? The Story of the Pearl River Map Turtle

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Pearl River map turtle, found only in Louisiana and Mississippi, has been described as the least-known species of the least-studied turtle genus in North America. Sadly, it may become extinct before it becomes known. While the species is recognized internationally and by the state of Mississippi, the U.S. government does not acknowledge it, and that obscurity is harming its existence. In the March issue of ELR’s News & Analysis, Kristina Alexander explains why listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) may be the only way to save it from extinction.

The Pearl River map turtle, unrecognized as a species by the U.S. government, hangs in a legal balance.

Map turtles, sometimes called sawbacks, belong to the genus Graptemys. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recognizes 11 species of Graptemys in its ESA species report, yet two remain in flux: the common map turtle and the Pearl River map turtle. Neither of these species are listed or being considered for listing, likely because the common map turtle has stable populations and because the Pearl River map turtle is newly identified as a species.

In 2010, scientists found genetic distinctions as well as “significant carapace pattern variation and morphological differentiation” between the Pascagoula and Pearl River map turtles. Based on that study, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) identified the Pearl River map turtle as a species and considers it to be endangered or perhaps critically endangered. Trade of the map turtle is restricted by international treaty—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)—at the request of the United States. Yet FWS still shows no signs of acknowledging the Pearl River map turtle as a distinct species. And while the state of Mississippi does recognize the Pearl River map turtle, it too has not added it to its protected list, though species have been on the decline since the 1950s.

As Alexander explains, the Pearl River map turtle risks extinction due to the same factors threatening others of its genus: habitat destruction, wanton target shooting, and collection. Substantial channel filling over the last 27 years has damaged the turtle’s habitat, as dredging and clearing rivers removes sandbanks and fallen trees; it also harms the mollusks on which it feeds. Recreation in certain areas also poses a threat, as map turtles’ habit of lining up on trees in the sun makes them easy targets to folks who like to shoot at unmoving targets. Increased recreational boating and camping out on sandbars also contribute to the species’ decline. Additionally, the pet trade threatens the turtle’s existence.

Alexander argues that an ESA listing may be the only way to save the Pearl River map turtle from extinction. Besides protecting the animal itself, federal ESA protection would add the benefit of conserving its essential habitat—the Pearl River and its tributaries. Such a designation would require more thoughtful management by government agencies, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Additionally, federal protection offers greater punishment and perhaps greater motivation to enforce laws against intentionally taking turtles.

Interested in learning more about the Pearl River map turtle? Download this month’s featured article free of charge, and follow the author on Twitter at @MSALSeaGrantLaw.

 

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