The turtles next door

Urban Turtle Project studies health, habitats of turtles that call Birmingham home.

by Sydney Cromwell

Black-knobbed sawback turtle
A black-knobbed sawback turtle caught by the Urban Turtle Project. Photo courtesy of Andrew Coleman.

Some of Birmingham’s residents have a hard time coming out of their shells.

There are 10 species of turtles that call the Birmingham urban area their home. Studying these turtles can be key to understanding the health of an entire river ecosystem, from water cleanliness and sediment runoff to changes in water flow. Andrew Coleman, the creator of the Urban Turtle Project, says right now we don’t know enough.

“There are holes in our knowledge regarding turtle ecology and conservation in our state,” he said.

Alabama has “outstanding” freshwater diversity and is the number one state for turtle biodiversity, Coleman said, with 40 species living in its rivers, lakes and coastal areas.

“They’ve been around since the dinosaurs and they outlasted them. You know, they are long-lived species. They can live decades, some species even centuries. And because of that, they can be indicators of the environment,” he said.

Coleman, who has studied turtles for 15 years and is a biology professor at Talladega College, said he started the Urban Turtle Project in 2018 as a way to collect data about how turtles survive in the midst of human disruptions like chemical runoff, roads and construction projects.

“If you look at our streams and rivers, they’re supposed to be nice, flowing, clear, rocky, and a lot of them are being choked out by sediment” that runs off from nearby development, Coleman. This kills plants and prey species that the turtles eat.

Before this project, data about where turtles do and don’t thrive, population levels and how they respond to flooding and other human interference was very scarce for the Birmingham area.

“Our waterways have been heavily impacted by humans, and so just trying to understand how the turtles respond to those influences is something that we’re trying to look at,” Coleman said.

Only two years into the research, he said the Urban Turtle Project has “amassed one of the best datasets on Alabama map turtles in the South or anywhere,” which can help future researchers. Because of their narrow range of habitats within the southeast, Alabama map turtles are considered “near threatened” and are a protected species in the state.

Three Alabama map turtles on a log.
Three Alabama map turtles resting on a log. Photo courtesy of Andrew Coleman.

The project also considerably expands knowledge about alligator snapping turtles living and breeding in the Cahaba River, which Coleman said he didn’t expect to see. These prehistoric-looking turtles can weigh anywhere from 20 to over 100 pounds and are considered an alpha predator within their habitats, making meals out of anything it can catch or scavenge.

“It’s an amazing experience to be up close to an animal that could be older than you,” said Coleman, 40.

Alligator snapping turtle
An alligator snapping turtle. Photo courtesy of Andrew Coleman.

The Urban Turtle Project is most active from spring to fall, with support from groups like the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, the Cahaba Riverkeeper and the Cahaba River Society. 

Coleman will go out to spots on Shades Creek, Valley Creek, the Cahaba River and a Cahaba tributary to set up traps, then return the next day to see what was caught. He identifies the turtles by species and sex, weighs and measures them, takes a photo and then ID tags each one so he can see how they’re growing if he catches them again in the future.

The turtles are not fans of this.

“Oh they hate it,” he said. “… They don’t like it at all, but everything that we do is scientifically sound, so we try to stress the animals the least amount that we can.”

He’s gotten a few bites for his efforts.

“You have to be careful with some of these species because they will get you back if they can,” he said.

Coleman also hosts a couple of volunteer sampling weekends each year for the public to help with trapping and data collection, though the participation had to be limited this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Urban Turtle Project volunteers.
Volunteers at an Urban Turtle Project sampling day. Photo courtesy of Andrew Coleman.

While having more hands is helpful for the project itself, Coleman said the volunteer days are also about education and spreading a message of river conservation.

Turtles are good conservation ambassadors because they are accessible for people who may not otherwise think much about river ecology, and Coleman said sharing their story can guide people to a greater understanding of why Alabama’s rivers should be protected.

“That’s one wildlife animal that people seem to be drawn to,” Coleman said.

Seeing a wild turtle up close can be a great way to talk with kids or adults about conservation “but in a vehicle that can be welcoming, that people can engage with.” He hopes that interest will become lifelong.

“The public education aspect of the project is very important to me,” Coleman said.

In the future, he said he would be interested in working with researchers to study things like the levels of microplastics that turtles are consuming.

“I’m assuming that they are ingesting them, but to what degree? And to what degree are they being incorporated in the turtle’s tissues?” Coleman said.

Poaching is another area where he said there isn’t enough data in Alabama. A single person catching and killing turtles for international sales can be enough to destroy a local population.

“A lot of our species from the southeastern U.S. are being targeted, and there have been cases in other southeastern states. … I don’t think we have a good handle on if that is going [on] and, if so, to what degree in Alabama,” Coleman said.

He wants to expand the Urban Turtle Project to other local waterways and keep it going for years. Due to turtles’ long lifespans, good data about feeding habits, reproduction and survival rates can only be collected over the long term.

“I don’t see an end in the foreseeable future. … This is a passion project of mine,” he said.

Alabama’s biological beauty is like a house of cards, Coleman said. If just one turtle species’s population falters, it will be felt by many more plant and animal species, and those effects will ripple further out than humans currently understand.

The diverse species and ecosystems in Alabama are “something that we should take pride in and do what we can to protect them,” he said.

“Some people may sort of scoff at environmental issues based on politics, but I’d like to think that we’re blessed with this creation and we need to do what we can to steward it. I think that is an important message no matter what your belief system is,” Coleman said.

Even after 15 years studying everything from sea turtles to snappers, Coleman said he’s still excited to study the lives of these hard-shelled Alabamians.

“It’s still a thrill for me to interact with these animals, to learn from them, to admire their survival,” he said.

For additional information about the Urban Turtle Project, visit urbanturtleproject.org. The Southern Exposure film fellowship also produced a 2020 documentary about turtle conservation, including the Urban Turtle Project. That documentary can be viewed at southernexposurefilms.org.

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