UC Davis, CDFW and USFWS team up to assess western pond turtle health in California

The western pond turtle (Emys marmorata), the only native species of freshwater turtle in California, has been a species of special concern since 1994. Possible causes for declining western pond turtle populations include urbanization and habitat destruction (which often reduces or eliminates basking and nesting sites available near pond
habitat), poor water quality, and reduced survival of young turtles causing the population to be skewed towards aged turtles that don’t reproduce well.

The western pond turtle is California's only native aquatic turtle and a species of conservation concern. (Image courtesy of CDFW Outdoor California March-April 2011)

The western pond turtle is California’s only native aquatic turtle and a species of conservation concern. (Image courtesy of CDFW Outdoor California March-April 2011)

Another challenge to the survival California’s native western pond turtles has been the introduction and spread of non-native red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans).  Red-eared sliders were imported for the live food market and are popular in the pet industry, often resulting in illegal pet release. “Sliders” are larger than pond turtles
and outcompete pond turtles for nesting and basking sites.

This is a Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta), a common turtle in the pet trade. They compete in the wild with our native Western Pond Turtle, so they should never be released. (CDFW photo by Dave Feliz)

The Red-eared Slider is a common turtle in the pet trade. They compete in the wild with our native Western Pond Turtle, so they should never be released. (CDFW photo by Dave Feliz)

It is not known if disease is playing a role in the observed declines of western pond turtles.   Additionally, introductions of non-native red-eared sliders into pond turtle habitat might also introduce new pathogens (disease causing agents like viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites) or strains of pathogens that western pond turtles had not been previously exposed to.

Absolutely nothing was known about the pathogens western pond turtles are exposed to in California, so Janet Foley, Joy Worth and then Master’s student, Connie Silbernagel from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Deana Clifford from the CDFW Wildlife Investigations Lab, and Jamie Bettasco from the US Fish and Wildlife Service teamed up to conduct the first assessment of pathogen presence in western pond turtles across the state. The team also tested non-native red-eared sliders at study sites where both species were living  to see whether or not red-eared sliders carried different pathogens and whether or not western pond turtles living in the same sites as nonnative sliders were more likely to carry different pathogens.

A western pond turtle is being measured as part of a collaborative study to examine their health. (Photo courtesy of C. Silbernagel)

A western pond turtle is being measured as part of a collaborative study to examine their health. (Photo courtesy of C. Silbernagel)

The team found that both species of turtles carried Mycoplasma spp. bacteria (a cause of respiratory infections) with prevalence being highest at sites in southern California regions. Furthermore native western pond turtles that were infected with Mycoplasma spp bacteria were more likely to weigh less and live in southern California. All turtles tested negative for two common viruses, Herpesviruses and Ranaviruses, and Salmonella bacteria (which can cause gastroenteritis and is a bacteria that can infect people).

Dr. Connie Silbernagel tests the quality of a water sample. Connie earned her Master's degree at UC Davis conducting the western pond turtle health assessment with CDFW and USFWS.

Dr. Connie Silbernagel tests the quality of a water sample. Connie earned her Master’s degree at UC Davis conducting the western pond turtle health assessment with CDFW and USFWS.

This study is the first of its kind to document pathogen prevalence in both native western pond turtles and non-native red-eared sliders and will provide important baseline data as we strive to conserve western pond turtles in California.

Click here to view the abstract:

Silbernagel C, Clifford DL, Bettaso J, Worth S, Foley J. Prevalence of selected pathogens in western pond turtles and sympatric introduced red-eared sliders in California, USA. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms 107:37-47

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