U.S. Finalized Protections for Four Freshwater Turtle Species
On World Turtle Day, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have finalized a rule that was proposed two years ago that will address the growing threat of illegal take and trade in native turtles. This action will bring four native freshwater turtle species, the common snapping turtle, the Florida softshell turtle, the smooth softshell turtle, and the spiny softshell turtle, under protection of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Protections will include requiring exporters to obtain a permit before shipping these turtles overseas.
While none of the four species is in danger of extinction, a booming international trade has become a growing threat. The trade, fueled by increasing demands by Asian and pet markets, puts pressure on populations throughout the country, leading to concern about the long-term survival of several species. With CITES protection, FWS will better monitor international trade, determine the legality of exports, and decide whether further conservation efforts should be taken.
Furthermore, evidence shows that when protections for freshwater turtles are strengthened in one region, demand in other regions for unprotected species may increase. The rule was proposed after the 16th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties in 2013 to CITES, where China and Vietnam increased protections for 44 Asian freshwater turtle species. In response, the United States also proposed protections on its native turtle species.
“World Turtle Day gives us the opportunity to celebrate and protect turtles and tortoises and their disappearing habitats around the world and to focus on stopping illegal trade in these species, which are threatened by unsustainable trade and wildlife trafficking. In 2013, we collaborated with international partners to adopt CITES protections for Asian freshwater turtles. Our own native species face the same global demand, so it is critical we protect them under CITES as well,” said Bryan Arroyo, the Service’s Assistant Director of International Affairs. “We will work closely with state wildlife agencies to protect native species and ensure trade is legal and sustainable, particularly for species at greatest risk of overexploitation.”
Signed by more than 180 governments and countries, CITES is an international agreement with the aim to ensure that international trade of wild animals and plants does not threaten their species survival. The species are listed under one of the three appendices depending on the severity of the threat presented by the trade. The first appendix includes all endangered species and those that need highest level of protection. The second contain species labelled as threatened or near threatened while the third holds species that a specific party, like the U.S. FWS, who need the international cooperation to prevent unsustainable or illegal exportation.
Later this year, at the 17th meeting of CITES in Johannesburg, South Africa, increased protections for freshwater turtles will continue to be a priority for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Listing these species under CITES will help engage our international partners to assist our special agents and wildlife inspectors in the fight against the illegal turtle trade, including investigating the criminals who profit from it,” states Ed Grace, the Service’s Deputy Chief of Law Enforcement.
Scientists Identify New Silver Boa Constrictor Species as Critically Endangered
A team of U.S. scientists journeyed to an uninhabited island in the southern Bahamas, where they discovered a new snake species. The finding was a coincidence when one of the scientists noticed a snake climbing a tree that seemed to shine like metal.
Biologist R. Graham Reynolds described their encounter as “We all came to take a look at it, and it was instantly clear that this was something different.” Other expedition members like Alberto Puente-Rolon, a Caribbean boa expert, agreed that the animal appeared unlike any species of known boa.
They continued their search on the island for others like the one they found. By the time they settled down to sleep on the beach at Conception Island, the team found four more. Eventually a sixth was discovered when one individual snake crawled over another team member during their sleep. Captured silver boas were electronically tagged by the scientists before being freed back into their forest home. DNA analyses back at the lab confirmed their suspicions that the snake was a new species.
“This discovery is significant because of how well-studied many parts of the Bahamas are, especially in terms of herpetology,” says Julie Ray, director of the conservation group Team Snake Panama.
The scientists named the newfound species Conception Bank silver boa (Chilabothrus argentum) for its distinctive metallic color and the fact that the first specimen was found climbing a silver palm tree.
Boa constrictor expert Robert Henderson from the Milwaukee Museum of Natural History, though not part of the team, commented on the find with “Worldwide, new species of frogs and lizards are being discovered and described with some regularity. New species of snakes, however, are much rarer.”
There are three other Bahamian boa species, with dark splotches and stripes that look very different from the much paler, silver boa. Also, unlike the others, boas prefer to live in trees where it feeds mainly on birds.
As far as the scientists know, the silver boa is native to only the Conception Island Bank and nowhere else. “This new species occurs on a group of islands that have never been connected to any of the other islands in the Bahamas,” reasons Reynolds.
Therefore, the team estimates that the entire population is fewer than a thousand individuals that live on that island, making the boa vulnerable to extinction. Reynolds and his team believe that the silver boa should be listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They are also working with the Bahamas National Trust, which administers the national parks, on strategies to protect the species.
Fortunately, the islands on the Conception Island Bank are considered national parkland, making visitors and tourists rare.
However, the boa still faces several threats. This includes natural disasters which could potentially wipe out the population, pet trade poaching, and feral cats found on the island. Elsewhere in the Bahamas, feral cats are known to prey on boas.
Ray stated that “an attempt should be made to remove the feral cats from this protected natural area because they are not native predators.”
Henderson also commented about that the discovery represents how much we, as humans, have not yet discovered. The beautiful Bahamian silver boa, already possibly critically endangered, reminds us that important discoveries are still waiting to be made.”
San Diego Zoo and the Mountain Yellow-legged Frog Recovery Project
This year is the 10th year, the recovery program has been operating at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Considered to be one of their most productive breeding years thus far, seventeen captive females laid clutches between April and May, totalling over 7,600 eggs. About 27% were fertilized or 2,000 developing embryos for the next generation.
The mountain yellow-legged frog occurs only in western Sierra Nevada, extending from south of the Monarch Divide in Fresno County through portions of the Kern River drainage. Majority of these frogs’ range are found on National Forest and National Parklands.
However, studies show that their populations have declined by over 80% from a variety of threats. The frogs face increasing habitat degradation and fragmentation, predation and disease, climate change, and interaction of these various stressors impacting the small populations. Surviving populations have become much more smaller and more isolated, with breeding in disease-infested populations highly reduced from historic norms. One particular disease that has been infecting the frogs for the past decade is chytrid, a skin fungus that thickens the frog’s skin so that it can no longer breathe.
The eggs look similar to tapioca balls found in boba drinks. Each egg is encased in transparent, sticky, gelatinous goo, otherwise known as “egg jelly”. This layer protects the eggs and allow them to stay clumped together and adhere to various surfaces and substrates.
The female frog typically lays her eggs while she in the handstand-like position. This orientation allows her to deposit her eggs to the underside of rock ledges, branches, and leaves.
At the San Diego Zoo Institute, the researchers examine the eggs under a microscope after approximately 12 to 24 hours when the eggs were laid. They will be sorted into three categories, dead, unfertilized, and fertilized, and counted.
If the eggs are fertilized, the cells will begin to divide within 24 hours. But, the rate of cell division changes depending on the water temperature. Eggs from amphibian species that live in warmer waters show cell division sooner than mountain yellow-legged frogs’.
A month from now, the tadpoles will emerge from the eggs. Some will be released to the wild in mid-June, while others will stay at the facility until they morph into small frogs and finally released in 2017.