Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Citizen Scientists Needed to Help with USGS Turtle Distribution Database

USGS is asking citizen scientists for help in better understanding turtle and tortoise populations throughout the Southeast United States.

A gopher tortoise on asphalt with green vegetation in the background
Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) Photo: Meg Lamont, USGS

The Issue

Turtles, which includes tortoises, are found in nearly all habitats worldwide including estuaries, freshwater rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds, and terrestrial habitats. Turtles include aquatic or semi-aquatic species which have more streamlined shells to help them move through water, whereas tortoises are more adapted to land and have more domed-shaped shells. Both turtles and tortoises comprise one of the most threatened taxa on Earth; Of the 356 species of turtles and tortoises worldwide, approximately 61% are imperiled or have already gone extinct.


A box turtle in green grass
Gulf Coast box turtle (Terrapene carolina major) Photo: Daniel Catizone, USGS

Many factors have contributed to these declines, including:

  • Habitat destruction
  • Disease
  • Exploitation for food
  • Climate change
  • Commercial pet trade


Loss of turtles and tortoises could have serious impacts to ecosystems and food webs. Turtles and tortoises contribute significantly to energy flow and mineral cycling in the environment, assist in seed dispersal, and structure habitats through bioturbation (reworking the soil) and burrowing.

Despite their importance, information on many turtle and tortoise populations is lacking due to difficulties observing these wide-ranging and often cryptic (or camouflaged) species. However, turtles and tortoises can often be found in habitats that are frequented by or are in proximity to humans, and most undertake regular migratory movements that may bring them into contact with humans. As such, humans often opportunistically observe turtles and tortoises while doing everyday activities, such as walking through a park, driving along a roadway or kayaking in a river or pond.

A close up of a turtle
Chicken turtle (Deirochelys reticularia) Photo: Meg Lamont, USGS

Local citizen-science projects have provided valuable demographic information for turtle and tortoise populations; however, these projects are usually geographically- and species-specific (such as box turtles). The goal of this project is to use sighting information supplied by citizens to fill gaps in our knowledge of turtle and tortoise populations throughout the southeastern United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires such information to document species' status and inform conservation decisions, including whether to list or de-list a species under the U.S Endangered Species Act (ESA).


How you can help

Turtles of many different species are frequently seen throughout our daily lives while walking your dog, driving to the supermarket, or hiking in your local park. If you observe a turtle or tortoise:


  1. Access the survey here:
  2. Safely take a photograph(s) of the turtle or tortoise.
    1. You do not need to handle turtles for pictures, and please do not chase or disturb turtles!
  3. Upload photos and fill out the form to the best of your abilities.
  4. Submit the survey!


Each submission will be reviewed and verified by USGS scientists before it is included in the database. Occurrence data for turtles and tortoises that are gathered from citizen scientists will be updated as surveys are submitted, and plots showing how frequent each turtle and tortoise species has been detected will be publicly available. However, maps indicating the location of these animals will not be available to the public to reduce the risk of poaching.

A softshell turtle with its head slightly extended out of its shell
Florida softshell (Apalone ferox) Photo: Meg Lamont, USGS

The information collected by citizen scientists will be summarized spatially, temporally, and based on habitat type and used by agency and academic researchers to examine distributions and potential range expansions of turtle and tortoise species. Environmental data, such as temperature or habitat types, could be incorporated with the sighting data and could be used to create predictive models to determine potential reductions or expansions of a species based on climate change or anthropogenic impacts, information that can assist managers in conservation efforts.



Interested in Citizen Science?

Interested in Citizen Science?