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A Survey for the Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) in Western Kentucky
Danna L. Baxley, James O. Barnard, and Heather Venter

Southeastern Naturalist, Volume 13, Issue 2 (2014): 337–346

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Southeastern Naturalist 337 D.L. Baxley, J.O. Barnard, and H. Venter 22001144 SOUTHEASTERN NATURALIST 1V3o(2l.) :1333,7 N–3o4. 62 A Survey for the Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) in Western Kentucky Danna L. Baxley1,*, James O. Barnard1, and Heather Venter 2,3 Abstract - Kentucky falls within the northern periphery of the range of Macrochelys temminckii (Alligator Snapping Turtle). To better understand the status and distribution of this species, we conducted a multi-year survey targeting areas with historical records and other suitable habitat in western Kentucky. A secondary goal of this study was to collect baseline freshwater turtle-distribution data from western Kentucky. Survey efforts from 30 May 2003 through 17 May 2012 resulted in no Alligator Snapping Turtle captures. Total survey effort comprised 829 net nights over 118 survey nights at 24 sites within 10 Kentucky counties. The average number of survey nights per site was 4.9, and the average number of net nights per site was 34.5. Despite survey efforts comparable to other studies, it is possible that Alligator Snapping Turtles remain in suitable habitats in Kentucky at densities that were too low to detect with our survey methods. If continued intensive outreach and sampling in Kentucky fail to detect this species, the reintroduction of captive-propagated individuals should be considered in suitable habitat. Introduction In an era of limited conservation funding, it is important for state and federal fish and wildlife agencies to prioritize and focus conservation efforts. However, it is extremely difficult to focus conservation efforts when a species’ status is unknown. Although status assessments for Macrochelys temminckii Harlan (Alligator Snapping Turtle) have occurred in multiple states (East et al. 2013, Jensen and Birkhead 2003, Riedle et al. 2005, Shipman and Riedle 2008), life-history studies have largely been limited to the southern and central portion of the range where the species is more abundant (Elsey 2006; Harrel et al. 1996a, 1996b, 1997; Howey and Dinkelacker 2009; Trauth et al. 1998). Within the southeastern US, the status of the Alligator Snapping Turtle warrants a high degree of attention because 1) Macrochelys is a monotypic genus, 2) this species is confined only to Gulf Coast drainages, and 3) severe population declines have already been documented. Alligator Snapping Turtle populations have been negatively impacted by overharvest and habitat loss throughout their range (Jensen and Birkhead 2003, Riedle et al. 2005, Shipman and Riedle 2008). Delayed age of reproductive maturity (11–13 y [Dobie 1971], 16 y [Tucker and Sloan 1997]), in combination with slow growth rate and long generation-times, amplified negative impacts of commercial harvest during the 1960s and 1970s (Howey and Dinkelacker 2013, Reed et al. 2002). Howey and Dinkelacker (2013) found that the effects of commercial harvest 1Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Frankfort, KY 40601. 2Murray State University, Murray, KY 42071. 3St. Johns River Water Management District, Palatka, FL 32178. *Corresponding author - Manuscript Editor: Will Selman Southeastern Naturalist D.L. Baxley, J.O. Barnard, and H. Venter 2014 Vol. 13, No. 2 338 (e.g., on population density and sex ratio) were evident 16 y post-harvest. In response to range-wide population declines, all but one state fish and wildlife agency (Louisiana) pursued regulatory action to ban commercial harvest by 1998, and by 2004, commercial harvest of the Alligator Snapping Turtle was illegal throughout the range. No commercial harvest records exist for Alligator Snapping Turtles in Kentucky; it is unknown whether their absence reflects a lack of reporting or a true lack of commercial harvest. Kentucky is on the northern periphery of the Alligator Snapping Turtle’s historical range, and this species is listed as imperiled in the state (NatureServe 2012). State regulations prohibit both personal and commercial collection. Management and restoration decisions for the Alligator Snapping Turtle are complicated because the species’ distribution and habitat requirements in Kentucky are not well understood. Further, there has been no concentrated effort to document the distribution and abundance of the species in the state. There are 9 verified Alligator Snapping Turtle records in Kentucky (Fig. 1). Reports of Alligator Snapping Turtles are reviewed, verified, and approved by Kentucky’s state herpetologist, John MacGregor (Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, Frankfort, KY). These verified records are comprised of 1 skeleton, 2 individuals captured in hoop nets, 1 individual dead on a limb line, 2 direct observations by herpetologists, 2 turtles caught alive by fishermen, and 1 newspaper article with a photograph (The Times Leader 2003). Figure 1. Historical occurrences and sampling locations for Alligator Snapping Turtles in Kentucky. Southeastern Naturalist 339 D.L. Baxley, J.O. Barnard, and H. Venter 2014 Vol. 13, No. 2 Of these 9 records, 1 was a hatchling and 8 were adults. The most recent verified observation in Kentucky was documented in 2004 (J. MacGregor , pers. comm.). In an effort to better understand the status and distribution of the Alligator Snapping Turtle, we conducted a multi-year survey, targeting areas with historical distribution records and other suitable habitat in Western Kentucky. Our ultimate goal was to identify populations of Alligator Snapping Turtles in Kentucky for the facilitation of habitat management and population monitoring to ensure persistence of remaining populations. A secondary goal of this study was to collect baseline turtle distribution data for Western Kentucky. Materials and Methods We identified survey sites (Table 1) based on a suite of criteria including presence of historical distribution records, site access, feasibility of sampling, habitat quality assessed on the ground and from aerial imagery, and anecdotal reports of Alligator Snapping Turtle sightings. Habitat was considered suitable for trapping if the water was slow-moving, deep enough to submerge hoop nets, and contained submerged structures and log jams—features which are preferred by Alligator Snapping Turtles (Harrel et al. 1996a, Howey and Dinkelacker 2009, Riedle et al. 2006). We made an effort to survey all localities of historical distribution records; however, we were unable to survey in the main stems of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers due to barge traffic and general safety concerns. Habitats we surveyed included multiple stream-orders as well as slow-moving oxbow habitats directly adjacent to the Mississippi River. There are multiple historic records of Alligator Snapping Turtle occurrence in Kentucky’s lower-order streams, so we included these smaller-order streams in the survey. We conducted surveys 1 April–19 September, when water temperatures exceeded 10 ºC. Within each stream reach or oxbow, we surveyed suitable habitat with hoop nets, baited with Hypophthalmichthys nobilis (Richardson) (Bighead Carp) or Cyprinus carpio L. (Koi). We used a total of 20 hoop-nets, with a range of sizes and meshes (3–4 hoops, hoop-net length = 1.5–2.4 m, mesh size = 3.8–12.7 cm, and width at the widest point of hoop opening = 48–63.5 cm). We cut spreader bars made of 1.9-cm PVC pipe to fit each net (2 per net) and used them to minimize the risk of net collapse, and allow surveyors to more easily position nets from the boat or the bank. The use of spreader bars also allowed surveyors to secure the nets using just 1 stake or point of contact on the bank. Using twine, we suspended cut fish from the hoop farthest from the net opening, and then situated nets immediately upstream of an aquatic structure, undercut bank, or log jam, when present. We used metal rebar or wooden stakes to secure nets in place, and positioned nets to allow captured turtles to breathe (at least 7 cm of each net extended above water). In oxbow habitats, we placed hoop nets around the perimeter of the oxbow; in riverine habitats, we placed nets in a staggered pattern on both sides of the bank. Average surveyed stream-reach length was 555 m, and the average size of oxbow lakes was 1436 ha. We checked nets each morning, processed all captured turtles, and re-baited nets regardless of the amount of bait remaining in the net. We defined Southeastern Naturalist D.L. Baxley, J.O. Barnard, and H. Venter 2014 Vol. 13, No. 2 340 Table 1. Survey locations, habitat type, survey effort, and species captured for 24 survey sites in Kentucky. A. s. =Apalone spinifera, C. s. = Chelydra serpentina, C. p. = Chrysemys picta, G. g. = Graptemys geographica, G. k. = Graptemys kohnii, G. o. = Graptemys ouachitensis, K. s. = Kinosternon subrubrum, P. c. = Pseudemys concinna, S. o. = Sternotherus odoratus, T. s. = Trachemys scripta elegans. Survey Net County Site Habitat type nights nights A. s. C. s. C. p. G. g. G. k. G. o. K. s. P. c. S. o. T. s. Ballard Axe Lake Oxbow 3 18 20 67 Ballard Castor Lake Oxbow 11 62 2 36 1 224 Ballard Fish Lake Oxbow 6 36 3 68 Ballard Swan Lake Oxbow 6 64 7 13 1 647 Caldwell Eddy Creek 4th-order stream 2 34 21 1 1 6 37 Calloway Beechy Creek 3rd-order stream 3 15 9 1 39 Calloway Blood River Embayment 13 85 1 15 11 85 Calloway Blood River Bottoms 3rd-order stream 2 22 12 23 Calloway Panther Creek 3rd-order stream 8 72 1 3 1 1 1 76 Calloway Sugar Creek 2nd-order stream 5 25 8 1 63 Calloway Wildcat Creek 2nd-order stream 4 11 9 50 Carlisle Doug Travis WMA Oxbow 2 36 2 4 28 Carlisle Back Slough Oxbow 5 30 4 1 8 2 185 Fulton Bayou Du Chien 5th-order stream 10 44 15 1 1 2 194 Fulton Obion Creek 6th-order stream 11 46 1 1 2 35 Hickman Obion Creek 3rd-order stream 2 20 17 3 4 8 Livingston Private oxbow #1 Oxbow 2 34 17 1 1 167 Livingston Private oxbow #2 Oxbow 2 34 1 4 183 Marshall Bee Creek 2nd-oorder stream 1 5 3 1 29 Marshall Clark’s River NWR 3rd-order stream 2 30 1 8 5 Marshall Jonathan Creek 3rd-order stream 4 25 3 1 61 Marshall Sportsman’s Marina 3rd-order Stream 3 15 2 2 1 1 2 61 McCracken Clark’s River 5th-order Stream 2 34 3 1 33 3 115 Trigg Duck Pond at Embayment 9 32 8 2 7 1 260 Lake Barkley Southeastern Naturalist 341 D.L. Baxley, J.O. Barnard, and H. Venter 2014 Vol. 13, No. 2 1 net night as 1 baited hoop-net set for one 24-hour period, and 1 survey night as 1 continuous 24-hour period of time. We identified, sexed, measured, weighed, and released captured turtles at the site of capture, with the exception of Trachemys scripta elegans (Schoepff) (Red- Eared Slider). Due to high capture-volume, we did not sex, measure, or weigh Red-Eared Sliders. Results Kentucky survey efforts 30 May 2003–7 May 2012 resulted in no Alligator Snapping Turtle captures. The total survey effort comprised 118 survey nights and 829 net nights at 24 sites within 10 Kentucky counties. The average number of survey nights per site was 4.9, and the average number of net nights per site was 34.5. There were historical records for 9 of the 24 survey sites. We surveyed the remaining 15 sites because they appeared to be suitable habitat. We captured 10 freshwater turtle species from 4 families for a total of 3071 captures (Table 1). Average turtle species diversity per site was 3.9, with Red-Eared Sliders and Chelydra serpentina L. (Common Snapping Turtles) dominating the turtle communities. Red-Eared Sliders represented 88.2% of total captures and occurred at every survey site; Common Snapping Turtles represented 6.5% of total captures and were documented from 23 of 24 survey sites. The other 8 species were captured at an average of 5.4 of 24 sites (Table 1). Discussion We did not detect any Alligator Snapping Turtles in this study, despite 829 net nights of survey effort within the species’ historical range in Kentucky. Although we averaged 34.5 net nights per site, and 4.9 survey nights per site, our sampling may not have been adequate to detect populations present at low densities. However, comparable sampling efforts (both net nights and survey nights) have been published for this species elsewhere in the range, with 8 studies averaging 565 net nights, lower than our reported effort of 829 net nights (Table 2). Although our effort for discrete survey nights per site is comparable to those reported for other studies, it might be insufficient to detect low-density populations persisting in Kentucky. In other parts of the range, researchers have utilized low numbers of survey nights and still successfully documented Alligator Snapping Turtles: Lescher et al. (2013) reported a range of 1.6–2.8 survey nights per site, and Jensen and Birkhead (2003) reported utilizing 1 survey night per site. Previous studies reported catchper- unit-effort rates (CPUE; total number of captures divided by total number of net nights) ranging from 0.0 in Kansas to a high of 0.28 in Arkansas (Table 2; Shipman et al. 1995; Trauth et al. 1998). Two studies (Louisiana and Oklahoma) reported a CPUE of 0.06 (Boundy and Kennedy 2006, Riedle et al. 2005). These studies reflected lower CPUE values near the edge of the range, and we expected CPUE to be similarly low in Kentucky. If Alligator Snapping Turtles were present in our sampling locations at densities similar to those in Louisiana and Oklahoma, Southeastern Naturalist D.L. Baxley, J.O. Barnard, and H. Venter 2014 Vol. 13, No. 2 342 our average of 34.5 net nights would have yielded 2 captured individuals per site, assuming a CPUE value of 0.06. It is important to note that we did not sample the main stems of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and it is possible that these larger rivers sustain viable Alligator Snapping Turtle populations in Kentucky, particularly given the recent documentation of 7 Alligator Snapping Turtles in the Mississippi River in Missouri (Lescher et al. 2013). In our study, turtle communities were dominated by Common Snapping Turtles and Red-Eared Sliders. Although we documented 10 freshwater turtle species, we failed to document one member of Western Kentucky’s turtle community: Apalone mutica ssp. mutica (LeSuer) (Midland Smooth Softshell). The absence of the Midland Smooth Softshell from our sites was probably a result of our lack of survey effort in open side-channels and large riverine habitats favored by this species (Barko and Briggler 2006). We caution against using this turtle-community data for relative abundance estimates because our survey method was not appropriate for all members of the freshwater turtle community. For example, adult Pseudemys concinna (LeConte) (River Cooters) feed on aquatic vegetation and crayfish (Buhlmann and Vaughan 1988); thus, River Cooter captures in this study were incidental because we baited traps with cut fish. There are several factors that may explain the absence of Alligator Snapping turtles in our sampling effort. These include habitat changes resulting in colonization Table 2. Review of Alligator Snapping Turtle trapping effort and catch per unit effort (CPUE) reported in the literature. Net Total Publication Survey year(s) State nights captures CPUE Conclusions Shipman et al. 1995 1991 KA 600 0 0.00 Possibly no breeding populations in Kansas Moler, P.E. 1997 1993–1996 FL 367 92 0.25 Current harvest restrictions are adequate Trauth et al.1998 1995–1997 AR 352 98 0.28 Continued depletion of large adults is not sustainable Riedle et al. 2005 1997 OK 1085 69 0.06 Dramatic population declines evident Boundy and Kennedy 2006 1996–1997 LA 3504 200 0.06 Recommend re-survey of sites to determine trends Jensen and Birkhead 2003 1997–2001 GA 281 55 0.20 Legal protection against harvest in Georgia is warranted Shipman and Riedle 2008 1994, 1997 MO 396 48 0.12 Habitat alteration continues to impact populations Lescher et al. 2013 2009–2010 MO 557 51 0.09 Microhabitat use differs for 2 members of Chelydridae This study 2003–2012 KY 829 0 0.00 No known breeding populations exist Southeastern Naturalist 343 D.L. Baxley, J.O. Barnard, and H. Venter 2014 Vol. 13, No. 2 of historic sites by Common Snapping Turtles, trapping in unfavorable aquatic habitat types, hoop-net openings that excluded smaller size-classes from capture, and insufficient trap effort. Lescher et al. (2013) found that Common Snapping Turtles and Alligator Snapping Turtles occupy different habitat niches and are seldom trapped in sympatry. Of 24 sites sampled in Kentucky, we sampled Common Snapping Turtles in 23 of these sites. Lescher et al. (2013) observed that when the two species occurred together, Common Snapping Turtles became dominant and displaced Alligator Snapping turtles; this finding supports the hypothesis that Alligator Snapping Turtles may no longer persist within historic sites surveyed in this study. Alternatively, aquatic habitats which were not historic sites but which we targeted as appropriate Alligator Snapping Turtle habitat, may not have contained appropriate habitat characteristics to support the species. Western Kentucky has undergone immense hydrological changes over the past 100 years. The Tennessee Valley Authority created Kentucky Lake when it impounded the Tennessee River in 1944, and the US Army Corps of Engineers created Lake Barkley when it impounded the Cumberland River in 1966. The area in Kentucky with the highest density of verified Alligator Snapping Turtleoccurrence records is the Tennessee River just north of Kentucky Dam. Panther Creek and Blood River, both located near the southernmost reaches of the Kentucky Lake impoundment, also produced verified occurrence records. Pre-impoundment, the Tennessee River may have offered excellent habitat for Alligator Snapping Turtles; though this supposition is not supported by the small number of historical records in Kentucky. Due to the highly aquatic nature of these turtles (Harrel et al. 1996a, Trauth et al. 1998), the Tennessee River impoundment likely deters potential migration of turtles between the Ohio River and the Tennessee River. Further, documented Alligator Snapping Turtles confirmed at the southernmost reaches of the impounded Kentucky Lake may be the result of remnant individuals seeking more suitable habitat and moving south (upstream) until Kentucky Lake dissolves into a network of small, ephemeral, second-order streams. These large-scale habitat changes in western Kentucky may explain the presence of Alligator Snapping Turtles at the northernmost (just above the dam) and southernmost ends of habitat formally comprised of the Tennessee River. Altered hydrology has been previously suggested as a source of population stress; Riedle et al. (2008) posited that large flooding events may adversely impact populations by altering hab itat and decreasing nesting success. Impoundment changes aquatic communities, especially fishes (e.g., Taylor et al. 2001). Post-impoundment, these new fish assemblages may not include Alligator Snapping Turtles’ preferred prey species. Many areas adjacent to historically suitable habitat are currently characterized by intensive row-crop agriculture where no riparian corridor has been maintained. The open nature of streams and rivers lacking riparian corridors typically reduces in-stream deadwood structure and alters environmental and water characteristics. Removal of riparian vegetation has been shown to increase water temperatures (Burton and Likens 1973, Feller 1981, Karr and Schlosser 1977), and riparian buffers have been directly tied to sediment filtration (Gough 1988). A decrease in Southeastern Naturalist D.L. Baxley, J.O. Barnard, and H. Venter 2014 Vol. 13, No. 2 344 availability of nesting habitat due to the reduced size of many riparian corridors may also limit Alligator Snapping Turtle distribution in western Kentucky. Ewert (1989) found that wild nests in the Apalachicola River drainage in Florida averaged 12.2 m from water. Without a strip of undisturbed habitat between water and row-crops, nests may be vulnerable to direct mortality from agricultural equipment as well as predation. Thus, nest success in Kentucky may be low in areas lacking adequate riparian buffers between water and row-crop agricultural fields. It is possible that Alligator Snapping Turtles remain in suitable habitats at densities that were too low to detect with our survey methods. The species’ status is unknown in the main stem of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers; however, these systems have been heavily impacted by channelization and habitat alteration and thus may not support healthy populations. Future efforts to locate populations in Kentucky should include targeted, intensive surveys where suitable nesting habitat and in-stream structure exists, particularly areas where we did not document Common Snapping Turtles. If Kentucky populations remain at low densities, it would be beneficial to encourage commercial and recreational fisherman to document and report bycatch, particularly along the mainstem of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Within the Alligator Snapping Turtle’s historic range in Kentucky, current habitatimprovement efforts by managers and biologists should focus on the restoration of riparian buffers and improvement of in-stream structure. If intensive outreach and further sampling in Kentucky continue to fail to detect this species, restoration should center on releasing captively propagated individuals, particularly given the recent (albeit initial) success of Alligator Snapping Turtle reintroduction efforts in Oklahoma (Moore et al. 2013). Acknowledgments We thank John MacGregor, Clark’s River National Wildlife Refuge, Phillip Sharp, Tonya Mammone, Joe Lacefield, Terri Estes, Laura Patton, Wes Little, Rob Colvis, Tim Kreher, Tony Black, Brent Harrell, Steve Marple, Jarrod Wood, Kory Knight, Jason Nally, Paul Rister, Sharon Valitzski Holbrooks, and Tom Burberry. Funding for this project was provided by State and Tribal Wildlife Grants and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources; and Brent Harrell, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Kentucky Field Office, provided equipment. Literature Cited Barko, V.A., and J.T. Briggler. 2006. Midland Smooth Softshell (Apalone mutica) and Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera) turtles in the middle Mississippi River: Habitat associations, population structure, and implications for conservation. Chelonian Conservation and Biology 5:225–231. Boundy, J., and C. Kennedy. 2006. 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