Journal article Open Access

The western pond turtle (Clemmys marmorata) in the Mojave River, California, USA: Highly adapted survivor or tenuous relict?

Lovich, Jeff; Meyer, Kathie

Aspects of the ecology of populations of the western pond turtle Clemmys marmorata were investigated in the Mojave River of the central Mojave Desert, California, U.S.A. One population occupied man-made ponds and the other occurred in natural ponds in the flood plain of the Mojave River. Both habitats are severely degraded as a result of ground water depletion from human activities along the river and one is infested with the exotic shrub saltcedar Tamarix ramosissima. Mean female carapace length (CL) was significantly greater (14.4 cm) than that of males (13.7 cm). Live juveniles were not detected during the period of study. Shelled eggs were visible in X-radiographs from 26 May to 14 July. Mean clutch size was 4.46 and ranged from 3 to 6 eggs. Clutch size did not vary between 1998 and 1999 but was significantly correlated with CL for both years combined, increasing at the rate of 0.548 eggs/cm CL. Gravid female CL ranged from 13.3–16.0 cm. Some females nested in both years. Mean X-ray egg width (21.8 mm) was not significantly correlated with CL or clutch size. X-ray egg width differed more among clutches than within, whether including CL as a co-variate or not. Nesting migrations occurred from 6 June to 8 July with minimum round trip distances ranging from 17.5–585 m with a mean of 195 m. Mean estimated time of departure as measured at the drift fence was 18:13. Most females returned to the ponds in the early morning. Nesting migrations required females to be out of the water for estimated periods of 0.83 to 86 h. The destination of nesting females was typically fluvial sand bars in the channel of the dry riverbed. Overall, the ecology of C. marmorata in the Mojave River is very similar to that reported for populations in less severe habitats along the west coast of the United States. Notable exceptions include long nesting migrations to sandbars in the dry river channel, a possible result of human modifications to the environment, and an apparent lack of terrestrial overwintering behaviour in Mojave River populations. The general similarity of desert and coastal populations is possibly a reflection of their recent geographic separation. Overall, populations in the Mojave River exhibit few obvious adaptations to living in the desert and are considered to be tenuous relicts of the Pleistocene. The small size and tenuous status of these populations suggests that immediate conservation action is needed, including establishment of satellite populations as a hedge against extirpation.
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