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Gutowski’s inspection shows that 5032 is doing fine, but his brothers and sisters are not. “Every turtle we’ve found has had some kind of deformity,” she says. Missing legs and tails—probably chewed off by opossums and raccoons—have been the biggest problem. People think of turtles pulling their appendages safely into their shells, but that’s not quite the case. Gutowski turns over 5032, and with a finger she gently pries a leg out to make a point. “See, the legs are tucked in, but a raccoon could easily pull at the leg and chew on it.” Raccoons and opossums are also prime suspects in the raiding of turtle eggs. In most years, every nest that the students or Lewis found has been destroyed.
Opossum and raccoon populations have exploded thanks in part to increased food from deer baiting and more people moving into the woods (outdoor trash and compost piles = feeding stations).
The damaged adults and eaten eggs could account for a particularly troubling situation: an apparent lack of juvenile turtles. “Who’s going to replace the adults when they die?” Lewis says. Wood turtles can live a long time—one lived 50 years in captivity—but they don’t reach sexual maturity until about 12 years old. If a juvenile class is missing or greatly reduced, it would take a long time to replace it, possibly endangering the species’ ability to sustain itself. The situation places added importance on protecting the reproducing adults.
Lewis’s studies are important for the wood turtle—possibly guiding decisions about habitat protection—but they reveal a far bigger issue. We still know so little about the complexities of wildlife, yet we are making decisions—like filling wetlands, fragmenting habitat—that shrink nature every day. “I keep coming back to Aldo Leopold’s first rule of intelligent tinkering: Save all of the parts,” Lewis says. “But we keep throwing the parts away.”
Jeff Smith is editor of TRAVERSE. email@example.com
This story first ran in Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine, September 2004.