The researchers pulled on waders and boots, gathered nets and buckets and walked through the Grove to the Shenandoah River. The water flowed steadily, the light glancing off the riffles as they stepped down the embankment next to a sycamore tree whose roots provided promising habitat.
The group from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal is in search of wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta) as part of a project to better delineate their current range and populations. The White House Farm is one of the 21 current test sites.
Wood turtles are good indicators of water quality in that they need clean, clear, flowing water to thrive. They live in riparian zones (naturally vegetated areas next to a stream or river) in water that is relatively shallow and they like to burrow into the nooks and crannies provided by tree roots and vegetation.
“Land use has changed,” says Lorien Lemmon, researcher from the Smithsonian Institute. This is one of the challenges facing turtles she says, along with flooding, being killed while crossing roads, housing developments decreasing habitat and being hit or crushed by farm equipment.
According to a pamphlet being distributed by the Smithsonian, wood turtles are considered the smartest of all turtle species and their home ranges can be hundreds of acres. Their life history is characterized by slow growth and they don’t reproduce until they are 10-15 years old. They have been known to live 50 years and up to 100 years in captivity.
“We have two more years of surveying,” says Ms. Lemmon, “our goal is to have 100 test sites.”