Research Report: Check List of Turtles

A note from Director of Conservation Science Dr. Elizabeth Long: For many years scientists and naturalists have been studying and observing the flora and fauna of the Shawangunk Ridge. Foremost among them was Daniel Smiley, for whom Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center is named. Dan wrote numerous reports summarizing his observations on various topics. This regularly occurring series will feature some of these reports; some hold tremendous scientific value today and just await an interested researcher to follow up, others showcase a quirky sense of humor or highlight an oddity of nature.

Painted turtles on a log © Renee Zernitsky

Read the report:Check List of Turtles, Ulster Co., N.Y.-Occurrence Records & Possible Additions.” 28 June 1953. Daniel Smiley.

A Note From Director of Research Emeritus Paul Huth: As the fall season is now moving very quickly, with average temperatures declining and day length shortening, cold-blooded animals are moving back to the vicinity of or entering their winter refugia or hibernacula. These include our reptiles—snakes, lizards, and turtles, and amphibians-salamanders, toads, and frogs. Thinking of one group, the turtles, has prompted me to select this Research Report to profile.

Spotted Turtle © Jolie Parker

From his growing up at Mohonk, and during six years attending the college preparatory Mohonk School, prior to his four years at Haverford College, Daniel Smiley (Jr.) had learned about the tradition of nature study and record keeping. While at Mohonk School in 1925, Dan and his brother Keith participated in a project identifying some thirty birds by sight and song and recording their spring arrival dates. Today this is one of the Preserve’s legacy databases from Dan that we are continuing, now over ninety years long.

After Dan graduated from Haverford in 1930 and returned to Mohonk, his management responsibilities and personal time allowed him to get widely around the Mohonk property and elsewhere on the Shawangunk ridge. As a result, his keen eye and attention to detail resulted in a flood of observations across the full range of Shawangunk plant and animal species for which he is now so well known.

Wood Turtle © Jacob B. Reibel

The first record of a turtle in Dan’s Species Card File is from the year 1930, noting several Wood Turtles seen around the Mohonk property that year. From 1931 on, regular observations were made of turtles when and where they were encountered. Many records included detailed measurements of carapace, plastron, weight, and behavior. These included Spotted Turtle, Wood Turtle, Box Turtle, Painted Turtle, and Snapping Turtle. Of the latter, Dan noted that on 18 April 1931, he saw one in the Duck Pond Brook, “this is the first definite record for the mountain in my experience.”

Snapping Turtle © Jeffrey D. Haines

The formation of the John Burroughs Natural History Society in December 1950, with Dan among a group of some 16 charter members, provided a framework to collectively “observe and record facts about the flora and fauna of Ulster County and the adjoining area.” Dan, along with botanist Henry Dunbar and birder and entomologist Fred Hough, was appointed to the Research and Records Committee. As a result, the JBNHS provided a forum for the compilation of various checklists of species and a sharing of information, knowledge, and field experience with other society members. This was the context for this Research Report.

In this report, Dan used his records, field experience, and two noted references that are still in the Daniel Smiley Research Center library. One was the classic — A Study of the Vertebrate Fauna of the Hudson Highlands, with Observations on the Mollusca, Crustacea, Lepidoptera, and the Flora of the Region by Edgar A. Mearns, 1898, and the other, Turtles of the United States and Canada by Clifford H. Pope, 1939.

Eastern Box Turtle © John Mizel

Since Dan produced the 1953 report, observations and records of turtles have continued over the last 64 years. From 1990 to 1999, Mohonk Preserve Research staff worked closely with the staff of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation on their 10 year Amphibian and Reptile Atlas Project. Over a number of years Preserve Research staff, volunteers and Research Associates provided all of our nearly 70 years of amphibian and reptile records digitally to the Atlas Project, including all of our turtle observations. There are now 20 species of turtles documented in the Atlas from New York State. There are 10 species occurring in Ulster County.

In 1994, continuing Dan’s legacy, Mohonk Preserve Research Associate Rosalind Dickinson and I co-authored a Checklist of Reptiles and Amphibians of the Shawangunk Mountains of Ulster County, New York, including the Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park Preserve. In it we list the five species of turtles that Dan included on his 1953 list, with an addition of the Red-eared Slider, an occasional release or escape from captivity. It is native to the southern states and adjacent Mexico. In our latest Checklist edition, we have also added another turtle species, the Map Turtle in 2007, giving us seven species recorded in the Shawangunks.

Read the report:Check List of Turtles, Ulster Co., N.Y.-Occurrence Records & Possible Additions.” 28 June 1953. Daniel Smiley.

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