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Western pond turtles in the Mojave Desert? A review of their past, present, and possible future

May 25, 2021


The western pond turtle (WPT) was formerly considered a single species (Actinemys or Emys marmorata) that ranged from southern British Columbia, Canada to Baja California, México. More recently it was divided into a northern and a southern species. WPTs are found primarily in streams that drain into the Pacific Ocean, although scattered populations exist in endorheic drainages of the Great Basin and Mojave deserts. Populations in the Mojave Desert were long thought to be restricted to the Mojave River, but recently another population was documented in Piute Ponds, a terminal wetland complex associated with Amargosa Creek on Edwards Air Force Base. WPT fossils in the Mojave Desert are known from the Miocene to the Pleistocene. Recently, Pleistocene fossils have been found as far into the desert as Salt Springs, just south of Death Valley. The oldest fossil records suggest that WPTs were present in wetlands and drainages of the geological feature known as the Mojave block prior to the uplift of the Sierra Nevada Range about 8 Ma and prior to the ~ 3 Ma uplift of the Transverse Ranges. Archaeological records document use of turtles by Native Americans for food and cultural purposes 1,000 or more years ago at the Cronese Lakes on the lower Mojave River and Oro Grande on the upper river. The first modern publication documenting their presence in the Mojave River was 1861. Museum specimens were collected as early as 1937. These fossil and early literature records support the indigenous status of WPTs to the Mojave River. However, mtDNA-based genetic evidence shows that Mojave River turtles share an identical haplotype with turtles on the California coast. Limited nuclear data show some minor differences. Overdraft of water from the Mojave River for municipal and agricultural uses, urban development, and saltcedar expansion are threats to the continued survival of WPTs in the Mojave River.

Publication Year 2021
Title Western pond turtles in the Mojave Desert? A review of their past, present, and possible future
DOI 10.3897/vz.71.e63987
Authors Jeffrey E. Lovich, George T. Jefferson, Robert E. Reynolds, Peter A. Scott, H. Bradley Shaffer, Shellie R. Puffer, Sarah Greely, Kristy L. Cummings, Robert N. Fisher, Kathie Meyer-Wilkins, Doug Gomez, Morgan Ford, Christopher D Otahal
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Vertebrate Zoology
Index ID 70220874
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center; Western Ecological Research Center