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Same turtle, new name

The unobtrusive and federally threatened bog turtle managed to get a new scientific name quite a few years ago without my being aware of it. 

The world of taxonomy has been upended by genetic sequencing. It turns out that while previously grouped all together in the genus Clemmys, bog turtles are closely related to wood turtles but not directly related to spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata). The bog turtle is now Glyptemys muhlenbergii and the wood turtle Glyptemys insculpta.

At least muhlenbergii remains constant as the bog turtle’s species name. The first scientific description of this turtle was the result of an accidental discovery by the 18th-century botanist and clergyman Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg while undertaking a landmark study of the flora of Lancaster County, Pa. Muhlenberg’s brother, John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, was a general in the Continental Army, and some of the ground he fought over was home to what would later be known as Muhlenberg’s turtle.

It is rare to discover a new bog turtle site in New England, near the very edge of its contiguous range. Connecticut has just a handful of known bog turtle populations and some sites have very few individuals. 

However, recently a new occurrence was confirmed in Fairfield County:  A 4-inch turtle can sometimes hide in plain sight, and occasionally in habitats thought to be sub-optimal. 

I haven’t seen a bog turtle since it got its name change, but I think about them as I drive past the few places where they still persist in our region. I’m involved in helping to conserve one of these sites in Massachusetts, and I often think about them, the rarest of our terrestrial turtles and one of the few federally listed rare species in our state. I am glad they are still here and I worry about their uncertain future. 

Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at www.greensleeves.typepad.com.