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America's Smallest Turtle Becoming Scarce

Endangered turtle
A bog turtle in its natural habitat. Health experts from the Wildlife Conservation Society are working with state and federal wildlife managers to determine why bog turtles are dying in higher numbers than usual. (Image credit: Julie Larsen Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society)

The smallest turtle in North America is getting more and more scarce, and researchers are banding together to find out why.

At 4.5 inches (11.4 centimeters) long, the North American bog turtle, or Glyptemys muhlenbergii, is the smallest turtle species on the continent. It can be found in marshes across the eastern U.S., but wildlife managers in the Northeast have noticed higher-than-average rates of bog turtle deaths over the past few years, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). [Image of smallest turtle]

Along with state and federal wildlife agencies, WCS is beginning a bog turtle checkup in search of a cause for these mysterious deaths. Researchers will conduct physical exams on wild turtles and take blood and fecal samples for analysis.

"We're conducting a broad screening in order to identify a cause or causes for the increase in bog turtle deaths," Bonnie Raphael, WCS's Department Head for Wildlife Medicine, said in a statement. "This information will be used to help determine if these recent losses are attributable to infectious disease, environmental perturbations or other factors."

The bog turtle is listed as "threatened" by the U.S. government and as "endangered" in New York, Massachusetts and by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, the main threats facing bog turtles are loss of habitat to development and the illegal pet trade. Pesticides and agricultural and industrial run-off may also threaten the turtle's habitat and food supply.

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Stephanie Pappas
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science. She covers the world of human and animal behavior, as well as paleontology and other science topics. Stephanie has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has ducked under a glacier in Switzerland and poked hot lava with a stick in Hawaii. Stephanie hails from East Tennessee, the global center for salamander diversity. Follow Stephanie on Google+.