The intermediate musk turtle, Alabama’s newest turtle species

19Dec

Peter Scott, a post doctoral scholar at UCLA, who received his PhD at the University of Alabama was not trying to discover a new species of turtle.

The impetus of his work was to find out whether the logger-head musk turtle was hybridizing with the stripe-necked turtle. When he looked at the hybrid zones between those two species with DNA studies, instead of finding a “hybrid” musk turtle, to his surprise he found a completely new species.

That turtle is now named the intermediate musk turtle.

Goal was not to find a new turtle

According to Scott, he was not trying to find a new turtle species.

“I never went out with a goal of describing a new turtle at all. I really came to this with an open mind. I thought all the previous biologist were correct. When I got my data and started analyzing it, the data spoke and said this is worthy of special recognition.”

Alabama ranks first nationally in number of turtle species

Finding a new species of turtle cements Alabama’s title as the center of turtle biodiversity in North America. Mark Bailey, the co-author of Turtles of Alabamaexplains.

“In our Turtles of Alabama book we list 40 distinct turtles (that includes species, subspecies, and genetic clades) native to Alabama, which is more than any other state. With the description of this additional species, we pull ahead of the pack even further with regard to turtle diversity. It’s important to emphasize this was not a turtle nobody knew about. It’s fairly common.”

And ecologically the intermediate musk turtle is significant.

Scott added, “What’s nice is the distribution of this turtle is shared by a lot of other aquatic biodiversity in Alabama, like freshwater snails, mussels and fish. They all have almost the exact distribution that is isolated in these specific watershed, so they have something special and interesting evolutionary going on in this system.”

The turtle is endemic to the greater Choctawhatchee River and Escambia River basins.

Cute and pugnacious

“An adult is 4 to 5 inches long, cute, pugnacious , big headed little animals, that are fun to see. You can see them walking a creek bottom or snorkling while they are out foraging on the river bottom, according to Scott

People recognize that they are intermediate morphologically between the stripe neck musk turtle and the loggerhead musk turtle.

Scott concluded, “Its good to know that we can describe new animals in our backyards, it reminds us why we need to be conscientious to what we are doing to our environment, because we might be erasing or hurting that something we don’t even know exist yet.”