Book Review: Northwest Fauna’s Western Pond Turtle “Handbook”

nwf-07Western Pond Turtle: Biology, Sampling Techniques, Inventory and Monitoring, Conservation and Management, by Bruce R. Bury, Hartwell H. Welsh, David J. Germano, and Donald T. Ashton, Northwest Fauna 7 (, 2013, 128 pages, $12.00.

After several years in the making, this winter saw the publication of the Society for Northwestern Vertebrate Biology’s Northwest Fauna monograph, Western Pond Turtle: Biology, Sampling Techniques, Inventory and Monitoring, Conservation, and Management (known informally from its inception as “the western pond turtle handbook”). This handbook marks the culmination of more than 160 years of western pond turtle research since the species was first described. It summarizes the state of the species to date, reviewing surveying and sampling protocols, and providing recommendations on species conservation, habitat restoration, and future research needs. Considering that the list of editors (Bury, Welsh, Germano, Ashton) and contributing authors is a veritable who’s who in the western pond turtle community, this handbook stands to become a “user’s manual” for the species.

The first two chapters are devoted to a brief history and natural history of the species, beginning with a review of nomenclature and taxonomy, a species description, and documentation of the range and distribution between British Columbia and Baja California, followed by a comprehensive summary of western pond turtle biology. The distribution of the western pond turtle throughout its Pacific Coast range illustrated in Figure 1 is a great synthesis of regional distribution databases, including the California Natural Diversity Database, Nevada Department of Wildlife, Oregon Biodiversity Information Center, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The bulk of the handbook, chapters 3 through 7 and the associated appendices, are devoted to a review of surveying and sampling protocols. First the authors begin by walking a would-be-researcher through sampling design considerations to help identify the possible constraints and opportunities of a study. Then, the authors tap into standard survey methodologies loaded with a dose of their personal experience garnered collectively through untold years of experience to demonstrate how the techniques can be tailored to studying the western pond turtle. These include everything from visual encounter surveys (western pond turtles are particularly wary) to trapping and snorkeling (the best baits) to nest searching and detecting hatchlings and young turtles (needles in a haystack). Turtle in hand, the authors next review standard field procedures on how to handle turtles and their data: equipment needs, sanitation, veterinary care, measurements (weight, size, age, sex), marking systems, and radiotelemetry.

In closing, the authors dedicate two chapters to the western pond turtle’s future. Under the banner of conservation and restoration, the authors describe the need for habitat preservation and restoration, the unknowns surrounding turtle relocation and head-starting, and the multitudes of threats that continue to put the species at risk: wetland and upland habitat loss, urban development and roads, contaminant spills and pollution, and introduction of predators (bullfrogs and largemouth bass) and competitors (red-eared sliders). Recognizing the need for further studies, the authors conclude with a caution against gray literature and a call for additional peer-reviewed, published research. Answering the questions that remain unanswered – species abundance, population trends, geographic variation, habitat requirements, life-history traits, daily and seasonal activity patterns, diet – may be critical to conserving the species in the years to come.

A single misstatement is noteworthy. In describing the nomenclature and taxonomy of the species in Chapter 1, the authors mistakenly state (page 2): “The name ‘Western Pond Turtle’ appears to have been first used in the Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians (Stebbins 1966).” In reviewing the early literature it would appear that Cooper (1859:292) – not Stebbins – was the first, not only to use the name “western pond turtle” by more than a century, but also to designate any common name for the species. Earlier scientific literature referred to the species by various binomial names only: Emys marmorata (Baird and Girard 1852), Emys nigra (Hallowell 1854; Gray 1855; Hallowell 1859), or Actinemys marmorata (Agassiz 1857; Baird 1858). Over the next century, several other authors referred to the species as the western pond turtle in advance of Stebbins, among them Lord (1866), Gray (1872), Ditmars (1907), Grinnell and Camp (1917), and Storer and Usinger (1963). Although trivial, this nomenclatural precedence establishes the priority for “western pond turtle” (instead of “Pacific pond turtle”) as the oldest available name applied, thereby reinforcing its use consistent with recent convention.

This aside, the handbook is nothing short of thorough, concise, and timely as interest in and threats to the species continue to grow, and the need for a coordinated study and census of the species becomes necessary. A 1992 petition to list the western pond turtle as federally Threatened or Endangered was rejected the following year, although today the species remains listed Endangered in Washington, Sensitive-Critical in Oregon, and a Species of Special Concern in California. Proactive research and conservation, as summarized and advocated in this handbook, are critical to prevent or mitigate the possible need to up-list the species in the future.

This review is also featured in the June 2013 issue of  the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles‘  journal, Herpetological Review.


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