programs Natural Resources

Western Chicken Turtle

(Deirochelys reticularia miaria)

Background

The western chicken turtle is an elusive freshwater turtle historically found in ephemeral wetlands in states west of the Mississippi River, including Louisiana, Oklahoma and extending to the Guadalupe River in Texas. It varies from the other two subspecies, the eastern chicken turtle and Florida chicken turtle, exhibiting an omnivorous diet and an earlier aestivation period.

Based on a 2010 petition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) found in 2011 that the information was substantial and listing the species may be warranted. At the time, biologists believed the species to be threatened by habitat loss, road mortality and commercial collection. The FWS plans to make a final listing decision in 2024 as to whether the species should be protected by the Endangered Species Act. The western chicken turtle is the only subspecies of the chicken turtles to be petitioned for federal listing.

Research Description

The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts (CPA) contracted with Texas A&M University Natural Resources Institute (NRI) in 2014 to estimate historic and current population trends, survey for individuals and model suitable habitat in Texas. Field surveys resulted in only three individuals captured. Since that time, new survey techniques and methodologies have been identified to better survey for the species.

To fill in the knowledge gaps, CPA contracted with the Environmental Institute of Houston (EIH) at the University of Houston – Clear Lake in 2019 to combine novel and traditional survey methods to determine the presence and micro- and macro-habitat associations of the species across its historic range in Texas.

The researchers are using environmental DNA samples and live traps to search for the western chicken turtle. Researchers will compare the effectiveness of the various survey methodologies to provide future biologists and resource managers with tools to effectively find and monitor the species.

EIH will then combine these survey results and environmental characteristics with landscape-level habitat information to document the habitat types the turtle uses. The analysis will document known distribution and likely habitat across Texas.

Deliverables Due at Contract End, January 31, 2022

  • Data from all surveys, including GPS coordinates
  • Report and analysis of survey results to estimate:
    • Distribution of the western chicken turtle in Texas
    • Habitat associations rangewide
    • Effectiveness of various survey methods

Why This Research Matters

The western chicken turtle has historically occurred throughout East Texas but has had few observations in recent years. Despite its charismatic name, the current distribution and status of the species are not well understood. An endangered or threatened listing by the FWS could add regulatory hurdles and uncertainty about permits for projects in multiple watersheds. Because the FWS decision on the species is not due until 2024 and because of its broad historic range, understanding the current distribution of the western chicken turtle will help address important questions about the species.