Turtles are ancient creatures that shared the earth with the dinosaurs and today are important and visible elements in many ecosystems. Some species serve as indicators of environmental health, while others are classified as keystone species (play a vital ecological role in a given habitat), umbrella species (conservation efforts on their behalf benefit the larger ecological community), or flagship species (iconic symbols of habitat conservation efforts). Thus, turtle conservation benefits the ecosystems in which they are found.
The IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group reports that approximately 58% of all turtles are threatened with extinction. A long list of diverse threats to both common and highly endangered tortoise and freshwater turtle species have been identified globally. Perhaps the greatest are habitat loss; collection for the food, pet, and traditional medicinal trade; road mortality; and predation. Working in negative synergy, these threats are creating a perfect storm for the most endangered wildlife taxa in the world. Certainly, these threats present broad and immediate conservation challenges. Despite the urgency of the situation, opportunities for conservation are abundant and the charismatic attraction of turtles makes them an excellent group for education and outreach efforts to enhance ecological, conservation, and environmental awareness.
Fifty-nine turtle species occur in the United States and many are of conservation concern. While species from areas such as Asia, South America, and Madagascar often receive the majority of conservation attention, the plight of North American species quietly goes unnoticed. The Big Turtle Year (2017) will emphasize the rich diversity, ecology, and conservation needs of species found in the United States. Long in the planning, this education project will increase awareness regarding the status of these often overlooked animals. George L. Heinrich (Heinrich Ecological Services; Florida Turtle Conservation Trust) and Timothy J. Walsh (Bruce Museum; Florida Turtle Conservation Trust) will visit numerous sites accompanied by other researchers in an effort to see as many species as possible during a single year. The project's progress will be featured on a dedicated website, promoted via social media outlets, and presented at several organizational conferences and meetings (both during and after the project).
Five field trips (7-10 days each) are being organized for the regions listed below, in addition to multiple shorter trips in Florida. Every effort is being made to maximize species diversity at the fewest locations possible to reduce costs.
Northeast (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts)
Southeast (Alabama, Lousiana, and Mississippi)
Midwest (Illinois and Michigan)
Southwest (California and Arizona)