I just returned from my home state of Tennessee where I encountered a couple of fierce snapping turtles along the Wolfe River in Memphis. There are 16 species of turtles in Tennessee but here in the immense state of California we have only two representatives of this ancient lineage of reptiles. Our designated State Reptile, the desert tortoise, is of course confined to the arid regions of Southern California, but the rest of the state only has the western pond turtle. That's it, one indigenous species. In fact, this is the only fresh water turtle native to the entire Pacific coast, from British Columbia to northern Baja.
Why only one species in this biologically rich province of ours? One word - water. Or more properly, the lack of it. Because in spite of the name these turtles are rarely found in ponds, which are mostly a man-made phenomenon here anyway. Originally, they were found in marshes, streams, rivers and lakes where good basking sites like logs or boulders let them conserve energy. Since roughly 90 percent of all California's wetlands have been lost, it is not surprising that western pond turtle numbers have plummeted since first being described by a Russian biologist visiting Fort Ross in 1841. The Gold Rush didn't help, either. Tens of thousands were eaten for their meat in the stampede to get rich.
But one modern practice also has been unkind to this species -- the release of pet turtles into the wild, particularly a native of the southern states and northern Mexico, the red-eared slider. It's the pet turtle of the pet trade. And it's listed by conservationists as one of the most invasive species in the world. It is aggressive, competes directly with our native pond turtles and can transmit diseases to them.
Turtles have been around since before the dinosaurs. They made it through that catastrophic meteor impact 65 million years ago, but it remains to be seen whether they can survive mankind.
This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.
Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads tours throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.