Natural History

Western Pond Turtle:

Natural History


Educational Material


Natural History

In 1841, Russian naturalist Il’ia Gavrilovich Wosnessenskyi came to Northern California to explore “Russian America,” centered on Fort Ross, near the mouth of the Russian River. Visiting Bodega Bay and the Sacramento River, he collected five western pond turtles, possibly the first pond turtles taken by a scientist in California. They were little different from those found today: up to nine inches long with shells and skin marked with inconspicuous but intricate marbling and stippling in earthy browns, greens, and yellows.

As years passed, naturalists came to realize that this modest pond turtle (Clemmys marmorata) — ranging from British Columbia south to northern Baja — was the Pacific Coast’s only native freshwater turtle. Compared to more than 20 turtle species on the Atlantic coast, the humble western pond turtle is a remarkably successful and wide-ranging species. And it’s been that way since the dawn of the Pliocene epoch five million years ago when changes in climate and tectonic and volcanic activity displaced its ancestor from the Great Basin into the turtle’s current range.

Indeed, enough pond turtles once inhabited California to drive industrial-scale harvest and rearing of turtles for soups and stews. Well before European settlers began hunting pond turtles, California Indians practiced their own subsistence harvest. The Clear Lake Pomo “turtled” by startling basking turtles from their tule-clump perches into nets set below the water’s surface. They also dined on turtle eggs, wrapped in grass and baked in ashes.

The popularity of the western pond turtle on California pioneers’ menus likely stemmed from East Coast colonists’ insatiable desire for another turtle, the diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin). In San Francisco, diamondbacks were deemed “the inevitable stuffing of the ‘upper crust.’” But by 1863, California markets had accepted western pond turtles as a substitute. Enterprising market hunters harvested western pond turtles with traps and quarter-mile-long nets. They shipped their catch in barley sacks to supply exclusive clubs, hotels and restaurants, Chinese clientele, and venues like San Francisco’s “entrepôt of foods,” the California Market, a “great bazaar of flesh and fowl and game.” By the 1880s, several thousand turtles were taken annually in Central California. In 1899, a record 53,935 western pond turtles were reported in the markets.

From that height, the industry petered out. Prohibition may have been a key driving force, given that terrapin dishes were often baptized with sherry, white wine, Madeira, or brandy. Neatly coinciding with the western pond turtle’s growing scarcity, the market demand for them winked out.

Despite its success over that vast range, the western pond turtle had grown increasingly scarce by 1992. That year, three herpetologists petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list it as threatened or endangered. Among the key threats the petition cited were habitat degradation and loss, the spread of exotic predators, and epidemic disease. The petition stated that the western pond turtle was in a “general state of decline through most of its range” and that its future could not be assured. The federal government rejected the petition, explaining that its substantiating information was largely anecdotal.

Even now, we lack understanding of threats to the species, population status, and elementary natural history. But with the loss of over 90 percent of California’s historical wetlands — critical turtle habitat — there’s little doubt that western pond turtles face some risk of endangerment. The pond turtle has been protected to a lesser degree under the California Department of Fish and Game’s purview as a Species of Special Concern, and is listed as a Critical Species under the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Endangered under the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

  1. #1 by Andrew Durso on January 11, 2012 - 6:28 pm

    I wonder if demand for Asian turtles will peter out as they grow more scarce, too, although it would seem to already be too late for several of them.

    • #2 by Matthew Bettelheim on January 17, 2012 - 10:45 pm

      In the late 1500s, diamondback terrapins (the species upon which the market for western pond turtles was modeled) were a dietary staple for New World colonists in the United States. Diamondbacks were so abundant and inexpensive they were purportedly purchased by the ox-cart load (to be shoveled into cellars like coal), and were fed to pigs, servants, and slaves to such excess that this practice led to a slave rebellion in the 1700s. By the 1800s, the diamondback terrapin had attained a gourmet status and commanded top dollar. Nevertheless, with the United States’ involvement in World War I, the Prohibition Era, and The Great Depression, the market demand began to wane, becoming unprofitable with the diamondback’s growing scarcity.

      Although the western pond turtle never attained the same gourmet status on the West Coast as diamondbacks did in the east, the market demand for western pond turtles steadily increased until world events (WWII, Prohibition, the Depression) undermined the terrapin market, leaving it uncertain what role scarcity played in the market’s demise.

      Today, however, scarcity instead seems to drive market prices sky-high. Although the Asian market-demand for turtles as food may wane with scarcity, dwindling turtle species collected for the pet trade or for traditional medicine instead become more marketable, if current trends are any indicator. Like a rare book or fine art, there always seems to be someone willing to foot the bill for the last of its kind – whatever “it” may be.

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