Happy World Turtle Day! Seriously.
This Sunday, May 21, 2017, James Maughn sighted and photographed a western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) wading along the San Lorenzo riverbank, below the levee, near the county building in downtown Santa Cruz. This second confirmed sighting of the last twelve months establishes the urbanized lower San Lorenzo River as potential stable habitat for this increasingly rare creature.
The submission of the western pond turtle record also achieves a long-awaited milestone goal for the Santa Cruz Critter Club’s San Lorenzo River Urban Wilds citizen science biodiversity project, which over the past two years has cataloged nearly 700 observations from over three dozen contributors, representing 235+ different species along the levee-bound stretch of this river, a wildlife corridor through the heart of downtown Santa Cruz.
The western pond turtle (actually now considered a complex of two similar species, the northern Actinemys marmorata, and the southern Actinemys pallida) is the only freshwater turtle native to California. Recent history has seen precipitous declines in populations of the pond turtle throughout its range, but especially at its northern (Washington state) and southern extents (Baja and Southern California), making central California increasingly vital territory for its conservation. The turtle is listed on the IUCN Red List as a ‘Vulnerable’ species, or “facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future”, and has recently been under consideration by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
The name “pond turtle” is not wholly accurate, as these turtles especially enjoy stream and river habitats, in addition to ponds and other freshwater environments. The turtles also spend significant portions of their lives on land, including creating their nests in terrestrial habitats nearby or as far as 1/2 mile away from water. Western pond turtles should not be confused with red-eared sliders or painted turtles, invasive species found in many California waterways which pose some threat to our native western pond turtles.
Prior to Maughn’s sighting this week, a western pond turtle had been seen and photographed on the lower San Lorenzo near the Branciforte Creek confluence, in August 2016, by Gary Kittleston. Before these two recent observations, it is widely contended that there are no memories of pond turtles inhabiting the lower river. The species is known to inhabit other sites in the county, including streams higher up in the San Lorenzo watershed, and even a small population at nearby Neary Lagoon in town. A local range expansion into the downtown river could mean promising things for the continuance of this species, should we choose to make the careful conservation decisions needed to encourage this development and the robustness of all biodiversity on the urban San Lorenzo.
Excited about this news, and in celebration of, ahem, World Turtle Day, I spent the better part of an hour this afternoon searching this stretch of the river for turtles. Unfortunately, I’ll have to rest assured that healthy turtles, if anything, are supremely adept at making themselves unseen. No jaunt along the river is a loss, however, and I quickly contented myself trying to follow the frenetic motions of two species of swallows aerobatically vying for airspace. And on my way back through the park, I saw nothing less gawkish than a flock of giant fuzzy baby geese grazing the lawn. I, my fellow Critters, and now at least one turtle, are very happy that there is still space for busy buzzing biodiverse aliveness along the lifeblood and very reason for Santa Cruz, the San Lorenzo River.