Archive for the ‘Turtles’ Category

loggerhead sea turtle hatching

Recently, I’ve been using this space to play around with the fuzziness of “species.” Hundreds of species concepts exist, and because different researchers have somewhat different perspectives, you will sometimes get real conflicts about whether something is a species or a mere subspecies.

In canids, we get caught up in species discussions that are about what really amounts to very little genetic variation. For example, red wolves, Eastern wolves, gray wolves, dogs, dingoes and coyotes are all lineages that have only radiated in the past 50,000 or so years.

By contrast Old World and North American red foxes, including the ones allegedly derived by those set out by English colonists in the seventeenth and eighteenth, last shared a common ancestor 400,000 years ago.  This finding means that we probably should regard the red fox of North America as Vulpes fulva.

But 400,000 years of divergence is nothing compared to the 3 million years estimated for the Indo-Pacifica and Atlantic-Mediterranean populations of loggerhead sea turtle. There has been some gene flow between the populations. Matrilines have flipped around South Africa, once 250,000 years ago and an once 12,000 years ago.

So researchers who specialize in wolf-like canids are debating over very small genetic differences and relatively recent divergence times.  Red fox researchers are only just now realizing that there are likely two species in what was once thought to be a Holarctic species. And those specializing in loggerhead sea turtles don’t really care that their species has such a deep genetic difference.  The occasional gene flows between populations are enough for them to recognize only one species of loggerhead sea turtle.

This problem gets more interesting when we start talking about “living fossil species.” Take this article on Futurity.org, which is entitled “Evolution Hasn’t Revamped Alligators in 8 Million Years.” This article discusses the findings of some paleontologists at the University of Florida, who have found 8-million-year-old alligator fossils in North America, and they are remarkably similar to the ones we have today.

One of the researchers is quoted in the article says,”We were surprised to find fossil alligators from this deep in time that actually belong to the living species, rather than an extinct one.”

I would be just a hair more careful in my language. Although one can certainly see that these ancient alligators looked and probably behaved very much like the current species, 8 million years is a long time. I doubt that current alligators and those from that time could even interbreed if they encountered each other today. From a biological species perspective, it makes little sense to call them the same species, but from a paleontological perspective, it makes more sense, simply because paleontology is more interested in morphology and ecology over the entire time a population has existed.

So yes, “species” is a nebulous concept, and that is a good thing.  It makes some legal aspects with conservation difficult, because we have an Endangered Species Act that is about a hard and fast definition of a taxonomic entity.  In reality, the whole nebulous side makes for interesting levels of inquiry. If the Neo-Darwinian synthesis correctly describes the origin of biodiversity, then we would expect these discussions and debates to be commonplace.

They certainly are quite common in taxonomy and systematics. They probably always will be. Part of what defines a species are the biases of the classifier, which can often be contradictory.

For example, I have no problem with the new taxonomy of wildcats that posits the European wildcat into a different species than the Near Eastern/North African species. However, I disagree with the position of the domestic cat, which derives fro the Near Eastern/North African species, as its own unique species.

That bias may come from the simple fact that I am more familiar with domestic dog taxonomy, and I have come to accept that domestic dogs are best classified as a divergent form of gray wolf. If the domestic cat derived from its wild ancestor much more recently than the dog derived from its wild ancestor, why would it make any sense to classify the domestic cat as its own species?

So in zoology, we have all these different perspectives on how to classify species. Specialists in sea turtles are able to tolerate a genetically quite divergent species, while experts in wolf-like canids will debate over much more recently divergent lineages. These researchers really don’t talk to each about their ideas.  Indeed, the only time loggerhead sea turtle researchers worry about what specialists on the wolf-like canid side are doing is when they need to figure out how to stop coyotes from destroying the turtles’ nests. But they don’t need to know the complexity of the systematics to find an answer.

However, it is amazing how different specialists come to tolerate variation within one species. That nebulous nature of the various species concepts makes for some interesting variations on what specialists accept as normal.

Specialists often have very different ideas in mind, depending upon what they are used to, and I find it beautiful, even if it a bit confusing at times.



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Photo by Matt Hammond.

I didn’t get a photo of this turtle while snorkeling, but a member of my party got it. I actually drifted right over it!

We saw an even larger green turtle later on, which was the biggest one I’d ever seen.

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Eastern box turtles need to be in the water a bit.



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This poor box turtle didn’t survive the haymaking:


Box turtles are sometimes killed by the tractors and other heavy equipment. My guess is the local turkey vulture clan cleaned out the shell.

I wish I had poked around with a bit more, because I could have clearly shown how turtle shells are actually just modified ribs.

But don’t worry too much. I cam across this specimen, who quite obviously survived it all.


Box turtles could be quite threatened in the very near future.

They can no longer be exported for the pet trade, and in the neighboring state of Ohio, they are listed as a “species of concern.”

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Frozen turtle

What happens when a certain dog leaves a stuffed toy out in the snow:


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Although the extreme heat has largely subsided, we still have relatively  high heat and humidity.

And when the weather gets like this, the box turtles look for little mud puddles to soak themselves in.

When I came across this particular turtle, his head was sticking above the water, but as I approached, he pulled it below the surface.

Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina) are actually decreasing in numbers in many parts of their range.  Many states now regulate owning and collecting them.

I don’t happen to live in one of them.

In this area, the box turtles are doing fine. I’ve seen many nests this year, and every year, I find juveniles and hatchlings.

So they are doing okay here.

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The males have these long claws on their front legs. If kept away from a female, he may be seen swimming around his tank while doing this bizarre ritual:


For those people who claim this is a dominance ritual– turtles don’t have dominance hierarchies. You have to have a brain larger than a pin’s head to have a dominance hierarchy. They do have territorial behavior, and sometimes  they do use mating behavior as territorial behavior. I think it’s because people watch things like the Dog Whisperer that they think that all animal behavior can be reduced to dominance and submission. Well, that’s not true in dogs, and it’s certainly not true in more primitive animals.

When he gets a female in his tank, he does rakes his claws around her head. Apparently, female pond sliders like their men with cuticles like Edward Scissorhands.

Pond sliders aren’t native to my part of the country, but you can find them here. The red-eared subspecies is so common in the pet trade, and most people don’t know how to care for an aquatic turtle. When these things outgrow their tanks or their food bill becomes too high, their owners release them into the wild. Like this fellow. (NEVER EVER RELEASE PET ANIMALS INTO THE WILD. NEVER.)

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