Genetic analysis shows that the Eastern Massasauga hibernacula at Carlyle Lake are genetically distinct units.
Once found across the northern two-thirds of Illinois, populations of the Eastern Massasauga have declined, with only one known population remaining in Illinois. Our long term studies have found the top four sources of mortality to include automobiles, predation, management related mortality (prescribed burns, mowing, etc), and disease. Our current study indicates that efforts to address these ecological threats may not be enough to save this imperiled species.
The area under what is now known as Carlyle Lake was a floodplain valley known as Boulder Bottoms. The creation of Carlyle Lake in the 1960s flooded this area, separating habitats on the the east and west sides of the Kaskaskia River, pushing wildlife, including the Eastern Massasauga, to the edges between the lake and agricultural fields. These bands of habitat are separated by the lake, paved roads, agriculture, and urbanization, potentially limiting migration and gene flow between patches.
Our current study looked at 327 genetic samples collected between 1999 and 2015 from individuals at 9 hibernacula across 3 study areas at Carlyle Lake. Study sites separated by up to 5 km had limited gene flow, as did hibernacula separated by a few hundred meters. This restriction of gene flow increases the vulnerability of these already imperiled populations.
Our study indicates that conservation and recovery efforts need to consider genetic rescue efforts in addition to reduction of ecological threats. Such efforts may include translocations and captive rearing to reduce the impacts of inbreeding depression and genetic drift. Even short distance translocations between the different study areas at Carlyle Lake could help restore gene flow impeded by contemporary human created fragmentation.
Anthonysamy, Whitney J.B., Michael J. Dreslik, Sarah J. Baker, Mark A. Davis, Marlis R. Douglas, Michael E. Douglas, and Christopher A. Phillips. 2022. Limited gene flow and pronounced population genetic structure of Eastern Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus) in a Midwestern prairie remnant. PLOS ONE: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0265666
The first cooperative project is with the Iowa and Illinois Department of Natural Resources, allocated at $499,797 for the joint project titled “Blanding’s Turtle Conservation in Iowa and Illinois, 2022 through 2024”. The project team from the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) and National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (NGREEC) comprises Ethan J. Kessler, Michael J. Dreslik, Andrew R. Kuhns, and John A. Crawford. The team was awarded $249,449 for their portion of the project, “Population Assessment and Space Use in a Kankakee Sands Region Blanding’s Turtle Population.” While much work has been done on Blanding’s Turtle populations in the Chicagoland region, this project focuses on lesser-known populations in the Kankakee Sands Conservation Opportunity Area.
The grant will facilitate an intensive capture-mark-recapture study to determine population size and begin to collect demographic data. A subset of turtles will be tracked using radio telemetry and GPS trackers to monitor survival and determine space and habitat use. The data is necessary to determine the amount and extent of suitable habitat available on the landscape and address causes of mortality for this population. The work will build on previous research on Blanding’s Turtles in Illinois and further inform conservation planning.
The second cooperative project is with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources allocated at $247,892 for the joint project titled, “Regional Assessment of Widespread Mussel Declines: a Multistep Approach to Examine Potential Causes.” The project team from the INHS comprises Sarah A. Douglass and Alison P. Stodola while INHS alum Bernard Sietman will lead Minnesota’s portion. The INHS team was awarded $113,364 for their portion of the project. Freshwater mussels, an ecologically important component of river ecosystems, are experiencing widespread declines. With the award, Douglass and Stodola will investigate potential causes for these declines with the goal of informing conservation guidelines and recovery planning. Additionally, this study is an expansion of a largescale, cooperative project spearheaded by Dr. Wendell Haag, US Forest Service Research Fisheries Biologist, and American Rivers to examine causes of freshwater mussel declines across North America.
Researchers will assess pairs of rivers with similar historic mussel assemblages, comparing a river with relatively intact mussel assemblages and a river with a degraded assemblage. They will develop health metrics and assess habitat characteristics to identify potential causal factors of decline. Juvenile mussels will be propagated and used to assess health in response to potential causes of decline. Another part of the project will use eDNA and targeted sampling to update knowledge of Salamander Mussel populations in Illinois and Minnesota. The research will build on a pilot project previously undertaken by Douglass to use eDNA to detect the critically imperiled species and its host, the Mudpuppy salamander.
In granting these awards, USFWS recognizes the necessity of these two projects to further the goals of the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan to conserve imperiled species and their habitats.
Members of the PaCE Lab exhibited in Conservation World at the 2019 Illinois State Fair, providing information and education to over 500 visitors. In addition to displays about the research being done by the group, visitors were able to try their hand at using actual field equipment used by scientists in their daily work.
The Illinois Bat Conservation Program had a mist net deployed where visitors could untangle, identify, and measure bats, all while wearing leather gloves.
The Amphibian and Reptile Conservation group had snake tongs, hooks, calipers, and radio telemetry equipment available for visitors to try to wrangle snakes into a snake bag, measure turtles, or track a hidden turtle.
Other activities included Build-a-Bug, where people can assemble the arthropod of their dreams (or nightmares) from a variety of general and specialized appendages, Wheel of Migration, about the risks migratory birds face, and locating PIT-tagged animals.
The PACE Lab was well represented at this week’s Midwest Fish and Wildlife conference in Cleveland Ohio. Lab members and affiliates from the INHS Herp Lab and the INHS Mollusc Lab presented 7 talks, 1 lightning talk, and 1 poster on a variety of fauna including: Massasaugas, Banded Killifish, Asian Clams, Alligator Snapping Turtles, Bigeye Chub, and Rails.
Tracking recovery goals for the conservation reliant Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake. M. Redmer, M.J. Dreslik, and E.T. Hileman
Monitoring Eastern Massasauga populations within the Carlyle Lake region. M.J. Dreslik, J.A. Crawford, S.J. Baker, and C.A. Phillips
Combating threats to the Eastern Massasauga with directed conservation actions in Illinois. C.A. Phillips, S.J. Baker, and M.J. Dreslik
The epidemiology of Snake Fungal Disease in Eastern Massasaugas over the last 10 years. M.C. Allender, E. Haynes, M. Kelley, and S.J. Baker
Rapid expansion of Banded Killifish (Fundulus diaphanous) across northern Illinois: dramatic recovery or invasive species? J.S. Tiemann, P.W. Willink, T.A. Widloe, V.J. Santucci Jr., D. Makauskas, S D. Hertel, J. T. Lamer, and J.L. Sherwood
Testing the role of stream flow eDNA abundance using the invasive Asian clam Corbicula spp. M.A. Davis, J.S. Tiemann, S.A. Douglass, and E.R. Larson
Can we use environmental DNA to detect Alligator Snapping Turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) at the edge of their range? E J. Kessler, K.T. Ash, S.N. Barratt, E.R. Larson, and M.A. Davis
Using environmental DNA to determine Rail occupancy and track migration. A.A. Rahlin, M.A. Davis, and M.L. Niemiller
Recovery of Bigeye Chub (Hybopsis amblops) populations in Illinois. J.L. Sherwood, A J. Stites, J.S. Tiemann, and M.J. Dreslik
Dr. Sarah Baker accepted a position as a herpetologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department in October 2018.
Dr. Baker began at INHS as a graduate student conducting research on the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. She was at the forefront of the discovery and subsequent research of Snake Fungal Disease in Illinois Massasaugas. During her 12 years here, she authored and co-authored several papers and collaborated with researchers across the country.
Sarah will remain an affiliate of INHS and we look forward to future collaborations.
Baker, S. J., E. J. Kessler, and M. E. Merchant. Antibacterial activities of plasma from the Common (Chelydra serpentina) and Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii).
Dreslik, M. J., E. J. Kessler, J. L. Carr, D. B. Ligon, and S. Ballard. Mortality is too damn high: challenges of Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) translocations.
Edmonds, D., R. Nyboer, and M. J. Dreslik. Population dynamics of the Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata) at two sites in Illinois.
Kessler, E. J., K. T. Ash, S. N. Barratt, E. R. Larson, and M. A. Davis. Assessing the efficacy of environmental DNA to detect Alligator Snapping Turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) at the edge of their range.
Merchant, M. E., E. J. Kessler, and S. J. Baker. Differences in innate immune mechanisms in Common and Alligator Snapping Turtles.
Ross, J. P., D. Thompson, and M. J. Dreslik. Demographic influence of head-starting on a Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) population in DuPage County, Illinois.
Historically the Ornate Box Turtle was known from 45 counties in Illinois. Today you can count the number of counties with confirmed populations on two hands. This decline landed the species on the List of Endangered and Threatened Species of Illinois in 2009, with habitat loss and road mortality being the greatest threats to its continued survival.
We had the opportunity to survey two of the largest known Ornate Box Turtle sites this past week, with the goal of finding, measuring, and marking as many turtles as possible. With enough recaptures, we can calculate how likely it is for an individual to survive from one year to the next and determine population size. This helps us answer questions including: has population size changed over time? Is the population stable, increasing, or decreasing? Is the population at risk of extinction?
Searching for reptiles and amphibians is often quite tedious. You have to carefully scan ahead of each step for movement before a snake gets away, or spend hours flipping over logs to find the particular salamander you are looking for.
Fortunately, we were assisted on our survey by John Rucker and his Boykin Spaniels, who are not pets but rather working dogs. Years ago one dog proudly brought John Rucker a box turtle it turned up in the woods of Tennessee. He praised the dog and soon it brought back another one in its mouth. Eventually he turned his group of turtle finding dogs into a profession, helping biologists find these once common but increasingly rare chelonians for study.
With John’s dogs, our work was made easy. They carried on ahead of us, their noses to the ground, brown bodies nearly concealed by knee-high grass. When a turtle was found, a dog picked it up in its mouth and carried the reptile like a precious toy, walking to John with pride and eyeing anyone else who offered to take the turtle from it with suspicion. John praised the dog and then gave the turtle to one of us to to be worked up.
To keep track of individual turtles we are catching and whether they survive from one year to the next we mark each turtle with a code. The process is called shell notching, and involves cutting little pieces out of the marginal scutes (the sections of shell that border the outer edge) to assign a unique identification code to each individual turtle. The scutes are numbered from one to twelve on left and right sides, and by notching different combinations of scutes on each side more than 30,000 individuals can be individually identified. For example, by cutting a little section of shell on the first scute on the left side and the third scute on the right, you have just identified an individual as 01L-03R. When done properly, the shell notches stay with the turtle for the rest of its life.
Mortality events due to disease outbreaks have been documented in the closely related Eastern Box Turtle, and there is concern that the Ornate Box Turtle is also at risk. While we were marking and measuring turtles, Dr. Matt Allender and members of the Wildlife Epidemiology Lab were giving each turtle a physical exam, drawing blood, and swabbing their mouth and cloaca to screen for diseases and monitor health. Their work is providing a baseline for future studies on the health of box turtle populations.
With the help of the turtle dogs, we found more than one hundred turtles at the first site and nearly seventy at the second. The data is now awaiting entry and analysis, but several turtles we found were originally marked by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in 1988. At more than 30 years of age, these individuals are approaching the maximum known lifespan for the species.
Together with the population health assessment, we expect our ongoing project will guide conservation efforts for the Ornate Box Turtle in Illinois and help ensure its continued survival.