Biology professor John Roe’s landmark study of Box Turtles makes cover of Ecosphere Journal

Cover of Ecosphere (Photo credit: John Roe)
Cover of Ecosphere (Photo credit: John Roe)

John Roe has a long history of mentoring undergraduate students in box turtle research.  So it may come as no surprise that his long-term study of Eastern box turtles has made the cover of Ecosphere, a peer-reviewed open access journal in ecology.  Roe is the lead author of the paper, “State-wide population characteristics and long-term trends in eastern box turtles in North Carolina,” which was coauthored by Gabrielle Graeter of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and by Ashley LaVere and Ann Somers of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Their landmark, 10-year study merits special recognition, given global declines in turtle populations, and the pressing need for long-term studies that explore population trends.  More than half of all turtle species are now facing extinction or have already disappeared as a result of habitat loss and degradation, disease, overharvesting, and climate change.  Box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) were once more common in the eastern United States, but several long-term studies have found major declines in their populations.  The box turtle is listed as a species of conservation priority in more than half of all the states its inhabits.

The Roe et al. (2021) study is the largest of its kind on box turtle populations.  The study is unparalleled given its broad geographic scope, long duration (2008-2017), and large number of turtles monitored.  The study encompassed 39 sites in four ecoregions located in North Carolina’s mountains, piedmont, and coastal plain, and it included capture mark-recapture data on more than 3000 box turtles.  Study sites included parks, nature centers, camps, recreation areas, private properties, and a military base. 

Surprisingly, box turtle populations appeared stable in North Carolina, with no indication of declines, but population densities were smallest in urbanized areas and greatest in wetland habitats.  The study’s authors caution that their data are preliminary and care must be used in extrapolating to populations elsewhere.  Turtles are long lived and populations tend to respond slowly to environmental threats, so longer monitoring is warranted, and given that many of their sites were protected areas, turtles in their study may not have experienced threats that exist more generally in unprotected areas.  They recommend that land managers focus on local threats, such as wetland destruction and urbanization. 

The state-wide study would not have been possible had it not been for an army of volunteers – citizen scientists who partnered with the Box Turtle Connection network.  Co-author Ann Somers founded the Box Turtle Connection (BTC), whose citizen scientists receive formal training by BTC researchers.  Co-authors Ashley LaVere and Gabrielle Graeter are now serving as co-chairs of the BTC, and plans are to continue the study for decades to come.  The study has generated critical baseline data for monitoring future trends, identifying threats, and assessing the effectiveness of conservation management.  Looking ahead, the Box Turtle Connection network aims to develop strategies for the species’ long-term conservation.  No doubt, John Roe will play a critical role in this important endeavor.

Dr. John Roe
Dr. John Roe

Dr. John Roe is a herpetologist and an Associate Professor in the Biology Department, and winner of the 2020 Undergraduate Research Mentor Award given by the Pembroke Undergraduate Research and Creativity Center Council (PURC).  He has co-authored numerous peer-reviewed papers with undergraduate researchers.  When not mentoring students in research, you can find him in the college classroom inspiring students in science literacy and scholarship.

Citation for paper: Roe et al. (Ecosphere, Volume 12, Issue 2, Article e03378;