by Lou Varricchio
Many anglers, boaters, and other outdoor enthusiasts along the shore of Lake Champlain in Addison County, Vermont, and elsewhere, may not be familiar with the Spiny Softshell turtle with its melodious Latin scientific name Apalone spinifera.
The somewhat secretive turtle with a pointed snout is among the largest freshwater turtle species in the area. In addition to life along the big lake, the turtle also likes many ponds, rivers, creeks, and tributaries throughout Addison County as well as on both sides of the big lake.
The turtle is identified by its leathery, flexible carapace (shell) somewhat like the shell of the giant Leatherback sea turtle found in almost Earth’s oceans.
Living on insects, crayfish, fish, mussels, algae, and other plants in shallow water, these turtles can also dive down as far as 32 feet to feed. According to the Journal of Herpetology, they can either actively hunt prey or bury themselves in the sand and wait to ambush prey,
Now, this unusual turtle is the focus of a long-term monitoring and management program in Vermont to make it more successful in the future. The reptile is listed as “threatened” in Vermont.
Two Vermont state researchers — Katherina D. Gieder and Steven G. Parren of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department — and Molly Parren from the American Turtle Observatory of Massachusetts, recently presented their findings of the turtle’s current vitality based on their observations of several protected nesting sites around Lake Champlain including Addison County.
The trio’s work was published last month in the international journal Herpetological Conservation and Biology.
While the turtle remains threatened locally, the researchers reported some good news about the Spiny Softshell.
They found a number of “successful” nests locally, including the number of baby turtles that hatched; the observations also included several associated local turtle species, such as the Painted and Northern Map turtles.
“We protected nests by fencing, trapping mammalian predators, and covering nests with wire mesh,” according to Gieder and the two Parrens. “Metrics (measurements) of Spiny Softshell nesting increased during the study period including nests that produced at least one live young and the number of hatchlings that emerged.”
Prior to the study being completed, the only turtle species documented in Vermont to regularly overwinter in its nest and emerge in the spring was the Painted turtle. The scientists now found evidence that the Northern Map turtle also overwinters in the nest along Lake Champlain.
Despite their recent report about the Spiny Softshell’s discreet life along the lake, the researchers stressed that the animal needs continued protection and management by humans.
“Protection… depends on the preservation of the remaining natural habitat and restriction of human activities in the critical areas,” the researchers noted. “We are making progress toward recovery but we will likely need to continue management of important nesting areas to maintain and enhance the Spiny Softshell populations.”