Angela Sirois-Pitel stands shin-deep in mud, surrounded by grass and poison sumac. She's holding a large antenna above her head, listening for a slow and steady beep.
Sirois-Pitel is a stewardship manager for The Nature Conservancy. And she's searching for bog turtles.
"We follow the signal and dig until we find one," she says. Many of the bog turtles have been outfitted with radio tags, hence the antenna. "We might get lucky and I won't have to dig around in the mud for too much."
Bog turtles are an endangered species in Massachusetts, found only in the western part of the state. They face danger from development, which destroys their habitat, and from poachers, who sell the rare turtle in underground pet markets. Conservationists have tried for decades to stop the turtle from disappearing altogether.
The turtle was only confirmed to be in Massachusetts in the 1960s; The Nature Conservancy started monitoring the animal in the 1980s. Over time, the conservancy and the state government bought land where turtles were living, resulting in a patchwork of state, nonprofit and privately-owned parcels. Many of the conservation efforts here are supported by state and federal grants.
Researchers, including Sirois-Pitel, now think the turtles may be moving toward recovery. A new partnership between Massachusetts and six other states aims to protect the turtles, and identify places where conservation can expand.
That’s why Sirois-Pitel is out in these shallow wetlands, looking for turtles. It’s part of a population survey to see how many bog turtles have survived to adulthood, how many have been born and where they spend their time.
Bog turtles aren’t thought to be a keystone species, like bees, meaning their extinction wouldn’t immediately trigger an ecosystem collapse. But according to Mike Jones, the state's herpetologist, they've been here since at least the last ice age, and are important to the state's biodiversity. And their extinction could lead to unexpected, long-term consequences.
“That’s where you have to sort of acknowledge, and in a humble way, that we don’t know the full value of everything, or what future generations will find valuable,” he says.
Sirois-Pitel, who has worked with bog turtles for more than 15 years, says there's a responsibility to protect animals, especially after ruining their habitats.
“I think it’s inherently part of our mission as humanity," she says. “I think it’s just important to give them space, and give a lot of other wildlife and species the space to live and persist, because they have that right too.”
In the wetlands, the radio signal leads her to a hummock of mud and grass. She crouches down, sticks her hand in a hole underneath, and comes up with a turtle. It’s smaller than a cellphone, with bright orange spots.
“This is male 135, and you can actually see he has some of these beautiful starburst patterns on his shell,” she says.
Sirois-Pitel first came across this turtle in 2008, when she was doing her master's research; he’s been a fixture in the area ever since. “He’s actually pretty active now, he’s sticking his head out, trying to climb out of my hands and get back in the water,” she says.
Bog turtles are one of the smallest turtles in the world. Their territory stretches from western Massachusetts down to Georgia, with a roughly 250 mile gap in the mid-Atlantic.
The federal government classified the turtles as threatened in 1997. In Massachusetts, they’re listed as endangered. Because of that status, and the multiple threats to their survival, we’ve agreed not to identify their specific location.
“It’s arguably one of the most imperiled species in the state,” says Jones. “It’s dwindled to fewer than 100 individuals.”
What makes the turtles so vulnerable — other than the poachers — is where they live. Bog turtles are only found in open, shallow wetlands with a very specific chemistry. And the turtles need access to dry land, so the wetlands can't flood too much.
Over the past two centuries, humans turned many of those western Massachusetts wetlands into farmland.
“The wetlands they live in are easily drained, they’re easily filled,” says Jones. “So the bog turtle was probably always rare in Massachusetts, but now it’s really in a precarious state.”
Massachusetts and The Nature Conservancy have returned some of the land to bog turtle specifications. Now they're focused on keeping it that way. Sirois-Pitel spends her days clearing out shrubs and trees; if left alone, the area will become overgrown, forcing the turtles to look for open land elsewhere. She also keeps an eye out for beaver dams, which can flood the entire wetland, displacing or even killing the turtles.
She monitors nearby construction projects. While active development of this specific turtle habitat isn’t common any more, changes to adjacent land can alter the wetlands. For example, the runoff from paving a road can release chemicals into the water; changing the direction of a culvert can cause excessive flooding.
“The challenging part here is that you want the location of the turtles to be secret,” says Sirois-Pitel, “but you also want projects that could impact them to be mindful and not screw things up.”
What’s harder to protect against is climate change. The site is somewhat protected, because scientists monitor the turtles and plant life, but changes are already apparent.
“We’re seeing different species show up in terms of newer, invasive plants ... that can be more suitable to these erratic weather patterns,” says Sirois-Pitel.
And it’s not just that temperatures are increasing, giving invasive species a way in. Climate change can change how an area floods, making the wetland uninhabitable.
“Bog turtles live at this sort of Goldilocks spot in terms of hydrology,” he says. “Having too much water at the wrong times of year can change the habitat suitability."
According to Jones, turtles’ long lifespans mean they respond slowly to big changes.
Bog turtles are not the only ones in trouble. Alison Hamilton, a herpetology professor at UMass-Lowell, says nearly every turtle species in the state, with the exception of the painted turtle, is struggling because of too much human interaction.
"Adults [can be] killed either by cars, or just coming too close to humans," she says, or even from an increase in predators associated with humans, like raccoons.
Hamilton is not involved in the bog turtle research, but works on other projects, like looking at how roads can isolate groups of turtles and cause breeding problems. She says turtles are resilient — they have a tendency to hang onto places even after they've degraded, and have the capacity to adapt.
When it comes to the bog turtles, the work of these conservationists seems to be working.
“I really hope that the bog turtle makes it another 50 years, 100 years,” says Jones, the state's herpetologist, “but it is hard to see that far out. You do have to do your part in the moment.”
Jones and Sirois-Pitel don't have an official new estimate for the population just yet. But a first pass at the latest data has given them a rough estimate; the population in western Massachusetts has increased, to between 130 and 150 bog turtles.
And Sirois-Patel says she’s seeing other promising signs in the wetlands. On our field trip, she found a turtle that hasn’t been spotted in 10 years, and is now a healthy adult.