One morning last week, I was walking along the Truckee River in downtown Reno, and stopped to check out a Double-crested Cormorant that was sitting on a rock near the Booth Street Bridge. I see a cormorant there almost every time I go by, but I’m not sure if it’s the same bird, or just a popular rock. I looked at it for a minute and was about to walk away, when some movement behind it caught my eye. On the next rock upstream, a small turtle — I’d guess the shell was about 8 inches long — was trying to claw its way up out of the water. I scrambled down the rocks to the riverbank and snapped two photos — the one above, and the one below:
Now, this was a pretty exciting find. As far as I know, there is only one species of turtle native to the Truckee River — the Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) — and I’ve never seen one.
In 1992, two local researchers named Howard Panik and Sherry Barrett surveyed the entire length of the Truckee River looking for reptiles and amphibians, and were also unable to find Western pond turtles. They heard reports that the turtles were present, however, and made mention of this in their 1994 study called Distribution of Reptiles and Amphibians in the Truckee River System. According to their study,
“Toulouse (pers. comm.) reported three pond turtles (C. marmorata) at Oxbow Park in a 1.1 m deep pond, which contained many cattails. He also reported that one of the three turtles entered the Truckee River, which is connected to the pond by a small stream. If the Western pond turtle is still extant [existing] in the Truckee River, the population size is very small, and this species may be extremely vulnerable to eradication. The species was recently petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Burroughs stated that in about June, 1993, members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that they would not list the western pond turtle as an endangered species.”
At the end of the report, Panik and Barrett also mention an unpublished study by Holland (1991), in which one reliable Western Pond Turtle sighting had been recorded in 1987 of a large male, probably one of the last in the area. Their report is very interesting to read, and it makes me want to continue the search for Western pond turtles in the Truckee.
But, back to the turtle on the rock near the Booth Street Bridge. I immediately thought it might be one of the long-lost Western pond turtles, so was pretty excited. The turtle clung to the side of the rock for a minute, then slipped into the water, floated nearby for another minute, dove, and disappeared. I sat and waited for a while, but never saw it come back up.
At home, reviewing my photos, I zoomed way in, and could see a streak of red behind the turtle’s “ear”, and some obvious yellow streaking on the neck:
I did some Googling and posted the photo on Facebook, where some more experienced reptile folks weighed in. Western Pond Turtles do not have a streak of red, I learned, but you know what does? The Red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). These are native to the Mississippi River region, and are popular pets. People often release them into rivers and ponds, and they are considered a problem species in many parts of the world because they are able to outcompete native turtles. I haven’t seen one in the Truckee before, and USGS’s Nonindigenous Aquatic Species website had no record of Red-eared sliders being present here:
This most likely means someone has recently released their pet into the river. It may not be able to survive in our climate anyway, so if you see this turtle and are able to catch it and get it out of the river, that’d be best for the turtle and the river.
Well, it sure would be cool to see a Western pond turtle. I think they’re still around. I’ve heard rumors of turtle sightings out at McCarran Ranch Preserve, but have yet to see one with my own eyes. We certainly don’t have one recorded on the wildlife map yet, and the last mention of a confirmed sighting of a Western pond turtle that I can find is from 1987. If YOU could find one, that’d be awesome. Keep your eyes open and your cameras ready!