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Musk turtle

A fresh start for turtles: Warnell’s pond gets fall cleaning

The small, square pond in the Mary Kahrs Warnell garden is known as a spot for lunch, meetings or quiet reflection. But regular visitors to the garden will notice a change this fall.


Facing extreme temperatures and an overgrowth of vegetation, maintenance crews at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources spent time this summer cleaning the pond. The goal was to reduce the leaves and debris—which affect the water’s oxygen levels—and check on the friendly turtles that inhabit the space.


The process involved draining the pond and removing the turtles living among the aquatic plants. But the process hit a snag when the crew discovered an issue with the drain—preventing the pond from fully emptying—as well as a number of nonnative turtles in the water.


The drain issue will take at least a month to fix, said Warnell’s facilities director Mike Hunter, and the cleaning process includes pressure-washing and drying out the space before it’s refilled. But the unexpected turtles added another layer to the process. How they arrived is up for debate, although they appear to be pet turtles that were released into the pond.


The pond at the Mary Kahrs Warnell garden.
The pond at the Mary Kahrs Warnell garden with its vegetation removed.

Their introduction caused issues for the native musk and yellow-bellied sliders already living in the pond, as well as for the newcomers, said John Maerz, Josiah Meigs Distinguished Professor of wildlife studies who runs Warnell’s herpetology lab. Not only are the captive turtles not acclimated to the new environment, but they bring new diseases into the space.


“When non-native turtles are introduced, you always have the possibility of spreading disease,” said Maerz. “We can admire our native turtles, but we should think twice before getting a turtle as a pet. Releasing them harms both the pet turtle and native turtles.”


Turtle possession is regulated in Georgia.


In total, 19 turtles were gathered from the pond, said Maerz. Of those, only five were native and will be returned. The others were non-native species—primarily red-eared sliders—or hybrids of native turtles and non-native varieties. Maerz and members of the herpetology lab are now seeking new homes for the non-native turtles, primarily through educational avenues such as other classrooms.


Maerz cautioned anyone looking to have a turtle as a pet. They require frequent tank maintenance and can live a long time. Releasing them into the wild can spread disease and creates opportunities for species to hybridize, which affects the native populations. “Captive turtles should never be released into natural or manmade water bodies where they can interact with other species,” he added. “So, committing to adopting these animals is a commitment that should not be taken lightly.”


Warnell is developing educational signage to help garden visitors better understand the habitat and care associated with turtles. The native musk and yellow-bellied sliders that are returned to the pond will be identified with tags for easy identification, and Maerz said classes can incorporate surveying the pond throughout the year to keep track of the population and monitor their health. 


If a new turtle is discovered, it will be removed. The pond will also have increased monitoring to deter illegal dumping of turtles. New signs will include information on reporting untagged turtles, as well as proper nutrition and care.


A popular spot for lunch or studying, Maerz reiterated that what humans eat is often not appropriate for turtles.


“Turtles are omnivores, but the best food we can give them is turtle food, dry kibbled pet food or leafy greens,” he said. “Bread, crackers, chips—all those snack foods are not good options for feeding turtles.”


Once the pond drain is fixed and crews can properly clean the space, visitors to the Mary Kahrs Warnell garden should expect a similar clean-out about once a year. Warnell faculty are donating native water plants to replace the nonnative irises, and Hunter said he expects the pond to be back to hosting native turtles later in September or October, taking advantage of fall’s dry weather to fully clean the space.


The goal, Hunter and Maerz agreed, was to provide a pleasant environment for both people and turtles, while educating visitors on the pond’s inhabitants.


“The Mary Kahrs Warnell Garden is a place everyone can enjoy, from all across campus,” Maerz said. “By cleaning the pond and accounting for the native turtles that are appropriate for this urban environment, we can use the space as a teaching and learning opportunity.”





Slide/Banner Caption:
A musk turtle in a container in the herpetology lab.

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