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Save the Alabama Red-Bellied Turtles
Psendemys alabamenis

Revised 2/23/2009

     An email acquaintance with the Gulf Coast Turtle & Tortoise Society asked me to join a letter writing campaign to save the Alabama red-bellied turtles which are listed as an endangered species by the federal government. I said I would look into it and do something.

     You are probably already aware that I like to present first hand information on  and to minimize repeating "book learned" knowledge. I have never seen an Alabama red-bellied turtle and I have never been to the home range of these turtles in the Mobile Bay area. For me to offer you my opinions and to ask you to join in, I need something first hand. Emily my Florida red-bellied turtle is my connection, my comparison, my link. 

     As you read what I have to say and if you explore the links I am providing, I want you to keep in mind what I always ask you to do. I want to cause you to think about your own experiences and your first hand knowledge, and I want you to decide for yourself what you want to do. I will express views that you will probably not read anywhere else. I do not claim to be right. I do believe that together we can make a difference and save these turtles.

About Emily: Talking about Emily is like talking about one's children; you love them equally and do not express favoritism. Emily is not my "favorite", but she is the most remarkable turtle I have ever had. She is the largest turtle I have ever had at eleven inches in carapace length and eight pounds. Size alone distinguishes her to some extent. She is the only turtle I have ever given the run of the house in winter. She is very intelligent and very domesticated. She displays remarkable social behavior with our family.

     To set the stage for our discussion let me make the following comparisons between Emily and some other water turtles. Emily is relatively slow and deliberate in her movements. Out of the water she moves slower than many other water turtles and barely lifts her plastron as she moves. She has little climbing ability on land and does not raise her plastron off the ground when she encounters a fence like many turtles do. When she approaches a drop off like the edge of a deck, she does not plunge off. She considers vertical drops carefully. On the other hand many water turtles that like to bask, like painted turtles and map turtles, are fast moving and will plunge off drops without hesitation.

     I do not know, but I suspect that the Alabama red-bellied turtles are very similar to the Florida red-bellied turtles. If this is true, we not only need to save them from extinction, we need to return them to abundance so that we can know and appreciate them.

About the Alabama red-bellied turtles: I am going to let you read about the Alabama red-bellied turtles and their needs at the Save the Alabama Red-bellied Turtles Alliance website. Please go there and read about them. Also go to every link on that website for more information. Then come back here and continue.

Save the Alabama Red-bellied Turtles Alliance

Alabama's Red-Bellied Turtle
Watchable Wildlife "Alabama Red-bellied Turtles"
Outdoor Alabama "Alabama Red-bellied Turtle"

     The Save the Alabama Red-bellied Turtle Alliance is a part of the Lake Jackson Ecopassage Alliance, Inc. which is a non-profit organization. Dr. Matthew Aresco is involved with both.

Lake Jackson Ecopassage Alliance, Inc.

     If you want to learn more about the places the Alabama red-bellied turtles inhabit, there is a website, Place Names, that lets you enter place names and it returns links to maps and aerial photos. These maps and aerial photos will really help you understand the areas being discussed. Just input any of the names you come across. For more background on the Mobile Causeway go to the following websites:

The Mobile Bay Causeway Part 1
The Mobile Bay Causeway Part 2

     In 2008 fencing was finally erected along most of the roadway on the Mobile Causeway to keep the turtles off the road. There are private properties with driveways that still allow some turtles to make it onto the road. deaths have been reduced but have not stopped. The fencing will slow the decline of these turtles but not stop it. The fencing was paid for by the Alabama Department of Transportation.

About the Federal Recovery Plan: The Alabama red-bellied turtles were placed on the Federal endangered species list in 1987 and designated as endangered. In 1990 the official Alabama Red-bellied Turtle Recovery Plan was approved. The goal of the plan is only to reclassify them from endangered to threatened status. Since approval of the plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has done almost nothing nor has any agency of the state of Alabama. Ironically Alabama did make this turtle the state reptile in 1990.

USFWS Southeast Region's Mission Statement
Priorities of the Southeast Region, USFWS, July 2007

     I would be wrong to imply that listing the turtles as endangered has done no good. Designating the turtles as endangered has reduced or stopped the collection of the turtles and their eggs which has slowed their decline. The problem I see with listing animals on federal and state endangered species lists is that it almost assures the continued decline of the animals and the general public can only sit by and watch it happen. We are forced by law as individuals not to interfere. We can see the Alabama red-bellied turtles continue to decline while the state of Alabama and the USFWS do nothing to save them.

My opinions: In my opinion Abundance of Turtles I state that all species of turtles found in the United States can be abundant with no need to prohibit ownership of any species. The Alabama red-bellied turtle is a perfect example to illustrate my point.

     If when designated as endangered, the USFWS had taken immediate action to return these turtles to abundance, they could have achieved it by now. One solution could have been the placement of some adult turtles into a captive breeding program perhaps run by one of the commercial turtle breeding farms. The USFWS could have retained ownership of the turtles and the turtles could have been micro chipped for identification. Think of the number of turtles that could exist today after twenty years of captive breeding.

     Some people will read this and immediately say why it can't be done or it should not be done. Those who would argue why it should not be tried are only trying to win an argument and are not trying to save the turtles. Only existing in the wild until extinct is not a satisfactory plan or a solution. If the attitude is that it can be done, it would be a success after twenty years of working at it. Turtles do breed well in protected captivity.

     In my opinion the goal of USFWS should be to return these turtles to abundance with appropriate protection of habitat and nesting sites and limitations on the taking of wild turtles.

     I also believe that breeding populations of these turtles should be established in other suitable rivers so that the entire species can not be wiped out by one perfect storm like Hurricane Katrina. There are written accounts that the species was more widely distributed in the past. This is another point you will not hear much about. After all they may not really be so critically endangered if they exist elsewhere. They are also listed as endangered in Harrison and Jackson counties in Mississippi.

Where we are now: While there does not appear to be any government department doing anything to save Alabama red-bellied turtles, it is a well documented fact that many adults and hatchlings will still become road kill each year even with the new fencing. The crows and furry predators are eating every egg and baby turtle they can. And what are we doing, next to nothing. After all we are prohibited from interfering with an endangered species.

     There are some dedicated scientists continuing to study these turtles and their habitat which is very necessary work if the species is to survive in wild places. They are also lobbying and presenting their findings to various organizations. Follow the links to read about the work being done. Some of these scientists are also asking us to write letters.

Some Causes: As I read the accounts of the problems these turtles are having, I noticed that one common thread is us, our human activity. The nesting areas along the causeway and on Gravine Island have been altered. We have altered the landscape in a way the turtles like for nesting, but at the same time they are more at risk to nest predators and traffic. 

     Some animals also thrive living along side or in close proximity to people. I see more crows now than I did as a boy; is this true along the causeway. Are the numbers of fish crows increasing in the Mobile Bay area? How about raccoons, skunks, and other furry turtle nest raiders? Has our presence accidentally favored the predators. Feral pigs are also a big problem; they locate the nests and eat the eggs.

     I have read that the Alabama red-bellied turtles like to dine on an invasive plant, the hydrilla. Has our presence altered the balance of nature in a way in which the Alabama red-bellied turtles are not able to compete successfully over time even when they like many of the alterations we have made to their environment. If we can tweak our alterations to restore a better balance between turtles and their predators, should we not do so. Barriers to keep most of the turtles off the roads is an obvious necessity. Barriers are not the whole solution.

     If the sand deposits on Gravine Island have attracted too many turtles to the pearl of predators, maybe new more isolated sand deposits in the delta would be beneficial. Correctly placed sand deposits may be very beneficial and cost effective. For this we definitely need the help and study of the scientists. This would be a long term solution and not a quick fix.

My suggestions: If you are interested in helping save the Alabama red-bellied turtles from extinction, more people must get involved. Everyone of you reading this can get involved. Here are a few suggestions.

     1.  If you are in driving distance, visit the Mobile Causeway and get a first hand impression. It does not matter what time of year it is. Also visit the office of the USFWS Alabama Ecological Services Field Station at 1208-B Main Street, Daphne, AL 36526. Ask them if it is too late to see these turtles before they are extinct. Ask them what they are doing to save the turtles. Ask them what else is being done to save the turtles and by whom. Ask them if it is true that hundreds of turtles are killed on the causeway each year. And get the names of the people you talk to.

     The same applies to anyone visiting the Mobile Bay area on business or the Gulf Coast on vacation. Visit if you can. If you do visit, plan on returning during nesting and hatching seasons if you can.

     2.  If you do write letters which are superior to email, I suggest the same kind of approach. If you have been there, say so or say you hope to visit. Talk about what you saw and/or have read. Ask what is being done and by whom. Ask how effective the new fencing on the causeway is at keeping the turtles off the roadway. Ask how you can help. I am suggesting that you ask questions and ask that your letters be answered. Be positive and do not criticize. You want a response. Your letter may be ignored, but it will be harder to ignore than a letter demanding a specific action.

     A form letter you copy and put your name on is not worth much. It will be lumped together with similar letters and considered as one source. But form letters and email are better than nothing.

     Consider a written response a very positive achievement. Look for clues in it for ways to proceed, perhaps someone else to write to. If a clue does lead to writing someone else, make reference to the letter you received and who wrote it. Also send a thank you letter and ask more questions. Keep the dialog going!

     3.  If you can get a response, leak (broadcast) it to others so that others can build on it. Dr. Aresco has asked to be copied and is a good person to contact. I am also willing to use this page of  to relay information to others. Information needs to be shared; no one will succeed alone. We want to create an informed public outcry.

     4.  Visit the website of the southeast office of the USFWS Alabama Ecological Services Field Station. This office is just south of the causeway. Then email people at the USFWS and ask why the Alabama red-bellied turtle is not portrayed as an endangered species on their website. Ask that they add information on this turtle species to their website. Also ask to be notified by email when it is added. There is a list of the people in that office on their website with email links. Email all of them and you may get them buzzing.

     You might also ask if it is true that these turtles are being killed by the hundreds on the causeway. Suggest that if it is true that you would find it more credible reading it on their website. Be positive and supportive. We want them to acknowledge the problem they are not addressing.

     5.  If you live in Alabama, consider writing to your governor and representatives suggesting that the state reptile be changed to another species you suggest because you heard that the Alabama red-bellied turtles are on the fast road to extinction. Explain that it is embarrassing to have your state reptile pictured as road kill and soon to become extinct. Write similar letters for the editorial pages of Alabama newspapers. Imagine the impact it would have if such a letter was picked up by a national news agency, network like the Fox News, or a national radio talk show. Try to shame them into doing something.

     6.  If you can, plan to get personally involved with a group or on your own. The possibilities are numerous and I will mention a few.

     Join, form, or have a group you belong to take direct action to save these turtles. I believe multiple groups are better than just one large umbrella group. The most direct impact a group can have is to patrol the causeway moving turtles out of harms way. Groups can also raise public awareness, lobby politicians, and solicit support from businesses on the causeway. Groups do not have to be organized as non profits to act.

     There is a model for groups to take direct action to save nests and babies. It requires the approval of the USFWS. And it is taking place just a few miles south of the Mobile Causeway. Check out these links:

Save the Beach Sea Turtle Volunteer Program
Alabama Sea Turtle Conservation Manual

     On your own, if you can get there, patrol the causeway moving turtles out of harms way and protect turtles from crows while they lay their eggs. I am not suggesting you be too outright in your appearance or attract attention to yourself. Some people with good hearts take things the wrong way. But you can easily drive, ride bicycle, or walk along the causeway. You can walk a dog and carry binoculars like a bird watcher. Binoculars will also help you patrol much more ground. Carry a blunt ended walking stick that will not penetrate the sand and eggs such as a golfer's driver. You can use it to "drive" off egg snatching crows. You could also carry a metal detector. If asked say you are looking for the Lost Treasure of Alabamensis. Have a family picnic on the causeway. Carry a back pack or lunch bag in case you come across multiple baby turtles. Place baby turtles in the water.

     While you are patrolling you may come across other species of turtles which you will also wish to move out of harms way. By all means do so.

     7.  Dr. Roger Woods runs a program at The Wetlands Institute at Stone Harbor, NJ to save diamondback terrapins. The terrapins come on shore in mass during the day to lay eggs on the very busy coastal islands. They are not deterred by the presence of people. These turtles are very fast and many are struck by automobiles. Dead and injured turtles and any spilled eggs are taken to the institute where as many eggs as possible are salvaged and incubated at temperatures to produce females. Hatchlings are head started and released as yearlings. I have helped pick up turtles and release some yearlings.

     Healthy turtles are not disturbed unless they become tramped like I have seen on tennis courts where people were playing tennis.

    Dr. Woods has proven that many eggs can be salvaged from injured turtles and produce baby turtles. A similar program could be started on the causeway and include the eggs of any injured turtles found. A few turtles may also be saved. The USFWS station in Daphne is close enough to be directly involved. Their supervision or oversight would probably be necessary to make it legal. And the USFWS does have a formal program for volunteer participation. This would be a great way for an organization, group, or individuals to put direct pressure on the USFWS to do something to save these turtles and be directly involved too.

     Whatever you do, do not let the turtle eggs go to waste. Either handle them yourself or take injured turtles and their eggs to the USFWS station in Daphne. If you must, demand that they do something to save them!

     8.  If you try some of these suggestions and you get nowhere, please let me know. Remember it will take the actions of many people acting individually and in groups to be effective. I am willing to be a sounding board. If you do email me, put the word "Alabama" in the subject line.

     If you have a website or your organization has a website dealing with Alabama red-bellied turtles and their plight, let me know and I will add a link on this page. If you do not have a website and you want to start a group or find other interested people to join up with, I am willing to list your request here.

     I will not run a forum, but I can be more timely than most organizations. So let me know if I can help you help these turtles. I answer all email.

Thomas R. Schucker

4/15/2007 Revised 2/23/2009