Natural Resources

Big Surveys in the Big Thicket and Beyond

by Colin McDonald and Lauren Borland Published March 2021

The most comprehensive and collaborative survey efforts for turtles and mussels ever undertaken in East Texas will start this spring. Using survey methodologies ranging from dogs to divers, researchers will work with river authorities, private landowners, federal and state agencies and the general public to track down and learn all they can about the western chicken turtle, alligator snapping turtle, Louisiana pigtoe and the Texas heelsplitter.

Researchers prepare tissue samples taken from mussels along the Lower Neches River. Photo courtesy of BIO-WEST

The Comptroller’s office is investing in broadening the understanding of these species because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is considering listing them under the Endangered Species Act. The specific questions the research contracts address are the result of a year-long effort in 2020 to work with all stakeholders to identify and prioritize data gaps. This East Texas Initiative will continue in 2021 with a series of Aquatic Work Group meetings to provide updates on the research, new research methods and other species that may be listed.

Last year, researchers at the University of Houston – Clear Lake’s Environmental Institute of Houston (EIH) began a Texas-wide survey effort for the western chicken turtle in East Texas wetlands. They used every method they could, from dogs to environmental DNA, to detect western chicken turtles. Mandi Gordon, the project’s senior biologist, is now expanding the outreach to locals for crowd-sourced sightings of the species to identify new areas to search for them. Her team created an online reporting tool to encourage turtle sightings and gather specific data. Citizen scientists can provide their spottings anonymously or choose to share contact information to become more involved in the research.

Graduate students at the Environmental Institute of Houston conduct binocular visual surveys at an East Texas wetland as a part of the CPA-funded project to search for western chicken turtles. Photo courtesy Mandi Gordon, EIH UHCL.

The EIH research team is also spearheading a new project to understand population demographics and genetics of the alligator snapping turtle across Texas. An expansive trapping program is scheduled to kick off this spring and continue through March of 2023. Information such as population abundances will be important to understanding the conservation status of the species. Coordination among key stakeholders, including the Army Corps of Engineers and river authorities, increases the impact of this survey effort. This work will complement other efforts by contributing to a baseline of population viability, establishing reference sites and providing stakeholder training for future, long-term monitoring efforts. Results of the project also will be available on an easily accessed, online database that can be used alongside historical data to further inform monitoring. In the meantime, the Sabine River Authority is collecting citizen sightings of the alligator snapping turtle to leverage crowd-sourced efforts to search for the species.

Dr. Timothy Bonner is teaming up with colleagues at Texas State University and researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, University of Georgia, State University of New York College of Oneonta and BIO-WEST to understand the habitat associations and genetics of two East Texas freshwater mussels: the Louisiana pigtoe and Texas heelsplitter. The team will work with river authorities, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), USFWS, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and private landowners to gain access to sites with little or no data. They also plan to scuba dive to visit river bottoms that have never been surveyed. All this activity will culminate in the identification of long-term monitoring sites to address questions about both species’ life histories and persistence.

The research teams will submit all their data to TPWD and USFWS. The data will be made available to the public, except for data gathered on private property if that is the landowner’s wish.

If you have information to share that would assist these researchers, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the Comptroller’s Natural Resources Program.