NEW ORLEANS, La. (WLOX) - Two species of turtles found in Mississippi rivers may soon have new protections under the Endangered Species Act.
The Pascagoula map turtle and the Pearl River map turtle are often called “sawbacks” for the ridges along their backs that can form small spikes. The two turtles are found in the Pearl River and Pascagoula riverways, respectively.
Thanks to a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by the Center for Biological Diversity and Healthy Gulf, the turtles will have protections covered under the Endangered Species Act by Oct. 29, 2021.
A federal judge approved the legal resolution reached between the two parties that challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to make a timely initial finding on a 2010 petition.
“North American turtles survived the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, but these two species need help to live through the havoc we’re wreaking on rivers,” said Jason Totoiu, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “These turtles are in steep decline and need the safeguards afforded by the Endangered Species Act before it’s too late.”
Map turtles serve as indicators of river health, and poor water quality can devastate their populations. In addition to habitat loss and degradation from dams, floodplain clearing and river channelization, other threats include the harvest of turtles for sale in Asian food and medicinal markets and collection for the pet trade.
“The Pearl River Map turtle needs all the help it can get, so it’s good that the listing determination will proceed,” said Andrew Whitehurst, Healthy Gulf’s water program director. “Ten miles of its breeding and feeding habitat are now in the project area for the ‘One Lake’ project to dredge and dam the Pearl River’s main channel in Jackson, Mississippi. The Corps of Engineers is evaluating the project’s final Environmental Impact Statement now, so the Fish and Wildlife Service’s work is timely and relevant for these turtles.”
The Pascagoula map turtle has a relatively small range in the Pascagoula river system and can often be found in the lower Escatawpa riverways, while the Pearl River map turtle is only found in creeks and rivers within the Pearl River drainage in Mississippi and Louisiana.
The Pearl River map turtle, which can live up to 30 years in the wild, was once considered to be the same species as Pascagoula map turtle, but scientists more recently determined they’re two separate species.
To learn more about the Pascagoula map turtle, you can see one in the aquarium at the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point.