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Sunday, June 9, 2019

All creatures, scaly or slimy

By TODD McLEISH/ecoRI News contributor

Northern leopard frogs can only be found in one place in Rhode Island. (istock)When Scott Buchanan was hired as a wildlife biologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management last year, he became the first full-time herpetologist on the state payroll. 

It’s a sign, he said, that reptiles and amphibians are in need of management and conservation in the state.

“To be in herpetology is to be on the front lines of the global biodiversity crisis,” he said. 

“We’re at risk of losing, globally, roughly half of the reptile and amphibian species on Earth in the next 100 years. Turtles and frogs are in a neck-and-neck competition for the unfortunate title of being the most endangered wildlife taxa.”

While Rhode Island’s reptiles and amphibians haven’t experienced the level of habitat loss and disease that occurs in Southeast Asia or the tropics, Buchanan said “the crisis is very real in New England. 

The mission is very urgent, and we need to do everything we can here in Rhode Island.”

About 40 species of turtles, snakes, frogs, toads, and salamanders call the Ocean State home. All face issues of habitat loss, road mortality, and disease, but turtles are also faced with high demand from collectors for the pet trade.

While monitoring a rare population of wood turtles this spring, herpetologist Lou Perrotti, director of conservation at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, observed a small specimen he estimated to be 5 or 6 years old.

“I love to see the little ones,” he said, “but I worry that someone would put this one in their pocket and take it home.”

It’s such a concern that Buchanan is co-chair of a collaborative group of biologists, law enforcement officials, and legal experts from up and down the East Coast working to combat the illegal trade in native turtles. 

The objective, he said, is to raise the profile of the issue and encourage the law-enforcement community to be aware that a black market in native turtles exists in the region.

The illegal trade in wildlife is valued at about $19 billion annually, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s TRAFFIC program, a network of organization that monitors the trade.

“It’s something I worry a lot about,” said Buchanan, who conducted research on spotted turtles for his doctorate at the University of Rhode Island. 

“If you know where they are, turtles are pretty easy to pick up, take home, keep alive, and get them into the black market. All of our native species are vulnerable, though some are more prized than others.”

A Pennsylvania man was arrested last year for smuggling 3,500 rare diamondback terrapins from marshes in New Jersey and selling them online. Although no cases have been adjudicated in Rhode Island, Buchanan said there is evidence of the illegal turtle trade in the state.

Buchanan is also involved in region-wide efforts to study spotted turtles and box turtles, two species that are considered to be of significant conservation concern. He is conducting surveys of both species in Rhode Island this spring to gather as much data as possible about their distribution, abundance, demography, and population genetics.

In collaboration with Roger Williams Park Zoo and Brown University, he is also investigating the presence of disease in local populations of reptiles and amphibians.

“We need to improve our understanding of where the diseases are and what species are harboring them to get a sense of their susceptibility,” Buchanan said. 

“There’s chytrid [a common amphibian disease in the tropics] in our environment, though our frogs don’t seem to be susceptible, but there hasn’t been a lot of testing. And there’s a similar disease for salamanders that has had bad outbreaks in Europe, and we’re worried about it coming overseas.”

Two species of amphibian — the eastern spadefoot toad and northern leopard frog — are on the verge of disappearing from Rhode Island. Both have only one known population. The toad is only found at one site in Richmond, though efforts are under way to create habitat to establish additional populations.

The northern leopard frog is found only on the border of Bristol and Warren, and Buchanan said there is little that can be done to help it recover.

“The northern leopard frog might be the best example of a species that’s about to disappear from the state,” he said, noting that the species faces multiple threats from habitat loss, pollution, and invasive species. “It could happen this year, next year, or in five years, but all indications are it’s going to happen soon. And there’s not a tool in my toolbox at the moment that I can use to confront the situation.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.