As my lips slowly moved toward the mouth of the turtle in my lap, I admit to momentarily wondering how my life’s choices had brought me to this point.
As a research fellow with the Alabama Natural Heritage Program at Auburn University, one of my responsibilities is to help out on surveys and monitoring efforts so we can figure out how populations of rare species are doing in the state. One of Alabama’s most iconic species is the Alabama red-bellied turtle (Pseudemys alabamensis); this species is the official state reptile, but it is also listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The turtle has a very restricted geographic range—only a few rivers leading into Mobile Bay in Alabama and two nearby rivers in Mississippi—and that is the main reason why biologists think it is so vulnerable to extinction. But there have been remarkably few studies that actually attempted to estimate how many turtles are left.
A few weeks ago I was in Mobile Bay, assisting Jim Godwin, the Heritage Program’s aquatic zoologist, on a turtle survey. Our sampling protocol was to set a number of mesh traps—usually referred to as hoop traps because they are held open by a series of hula hoop-type structures—in the water and then come back and check them every day for a few days. Turtles swimming around in the water will encounter the nets and be funneled into an area that is difficult for them to escape from.
Now, what you may not know is that this coastal area of southern Alabama is a very important place for reptiles and herpetologists alike: There are more kinds of native turtles here than just about anywhere else in the world, with the possible exception of a couple of spots in Southeast Asia. So we may be targeting Alabama red-bellied turtles, but our traps are not selective, and it is not unusual to get some really cool bycatch, such as alligator snapping turtles and softshell turtles, not to mention things like the occasional ornery alligator.
Trapping turtles in this area can be unpredictable for a few other reasons, too. Because these rivers are so close to the ocean, they are subject to tides, and sometimes water levels fluctuate more than we expect. This sometimes causes the water to rise above the trap’s air pockets we leave inside for the turtles to breathe, pockets that are usually held open by a floating plastic container. In these rare cases, a drowned turtle is a very real possibility.
As we motored to a trap one morning, we were dismayed to see that the entire trap was underwater. And, as we feared, there was a large and completely limp turtle on the bottom of the trap. The animal wasn’t an Alabama red-bellied turtle; it was a closely related adult female Florida cooter. Although the two species look similar, the Florida cooter is common and widespread throughout the Southeast. That didn’t make the sight of this drowned turtle any less frustrating, though.
It’s hard being a young turtle—the silver-dollar-size animals are scarfed down by just about everything with a mouth. However, once a turtle reaches maturity, there aren’t many predators that can mess with it. This allows the population to compensate for the high juvenile mortality because adults can survive and produce a lot of young over many years. That is, as long as a couple of biologists don’t accidentally drown them.
I placed the lifeless turtle on the bottom of the boat and figured that we could at least donate it as a specimen to the Auburn Museum of Natural History; the collections there are useful for research and teaching. Then I turned my attention to helping measure and mark the other cooters we captured. (Fortunately, the rest of the turtles in that trap were all alive and doing well.)
After some time, my eye caught a slight movement from one of the turtle’s limbs. I knew that turtles were incredibly resilient animals and I had even heard of researchers resuscitating turtles that had spent too long in submerged traps. Thinking back to a first aid class I had taken a few years earlier (and egged on by my partner, Olivia, who was tagging along on the trip), I decided to try CPR. The first thing I did was hold the turtle upside down to let any liquid escape, then I placed the turtle on my lap, held its jaws open, and blew into its open mouth.
I’ve been bitten by a lot of turtles in my life, and it hurts. A lot. Because I was afraid of a suddenly alert turtle chomping down on my tongue, I tried to maintain a slight distance between our mouths. I was hoping that this would also reduce my chances of smelling any of the turtle’s last meal … or contracting salmonella.
Although I could hear that air was entering the turtle, there was no reaction. I tried blowing more air. Nothing. Then I remembered that chest compressions might help with blood circulation and might even expel air and any remaining water from the lungs.
Pushing down on the turtle’s chest was not an option—the animal’s shell prohibited it. So I reached back under the shell and attempted to push the skin forward. I heard air coming out of the turtle’s mouth and was even more encouraged when, after a momentary and tense pause, the turtle took a deep breath of its own.
Almost immediately, the turtle became more active and starting flailing around with its limbs. Perhaps more entertaining is that at this point air started coming out of other orifices too (something you can hear on the video).
Although things were looking up for this Florida cooter, we decided she was still too weak to be immediately released, so we held onto her for another hour or two while we checked the rest of the traps, always making sure she was staying cool by keeping a wet cloth on her. At the end of the day, we motored back to the site where we had first captured her, placed her in the water, and took a sigh of relief as she propelled herself into the murky darkness of the river.