The Vallarta Mud Turtle | Mexico

THE COUNTRY

Mexico, Puerto Vallarta, Bahia de Banderas

THE ANIMAL

The Vallarta Mud turtle (Kinosternon vogti) was described as recently as 2018 (Lopez-Luna et al. 2018). Despite its unique appearance, it was overlooked by generations of herpetologists, with males exhibiting a striking bright yellow spot on the top of their head, which is less pronounced in females.

They are the smallest turtle species on the planet, with males rarely exceeding 75mm straight carapace length (SCL) and females being slightly larger but still rarely crossing the 95mm mark. Before the rainy season in May and June, they typically undergo 3-5 months of aestivation (a prolonged dormancy similar to hibernation), during which they are deeply buried in the sand. The tiny hatchlings, measuring about 20mm SCL, emerge at the beginning of the rainy season.

The rest of the year the species is highly aquatic, inhabiting ponds, slow moving streams, and swamps, where they feed on fish, insects, carrion, plant matter and basically anything that they can prey upon.

OUR LOCAL PARTNER

Together with our Mexican partner, the Centro Universitario de la Costa of the University of Guadalajara (CUC), we are dedicated to preventing the imminent extinction of this species.

THE PROBLEM/THE THREATS

This species is highly endemic to the small valley of the Bahia de Banderas in the Mexican provinces of Nayarit/Jalisco, inhabiting small, lowland, not brackish waterbodies. Unfortunately, this valley represents one of the largest and fastest developing tourist resort areas along the western Mexican coast, being a popular winter tourist area for sun-seeking north Americans as well as for many migratory bird species. The once-swampy valley is now densely populated and covered with upscale hotels, leaving few remaining water bodies for the species’ survival. We estimate that less than 1000 specimens survive, scattered across less than 10 known sites, covering less than 100 hectares.

During a field survey in February 2022, our team discovered many specimens killed by road traffic along one of the species’ most important habitats. These turtles were trying to migrate to their summer area to aestivate, as their pond dries up during the hot summer months. This road, which did not exist 10 years ago, now runs through the habitat, and no turtles are able to cross it alive anymore. Compounding the issue, the owner of this swamp, due to rising property prices, plans to sell the land to a hotel developer. This year in particular, the devastating effects of El Niño have triggered a major drought, affecting mainly the area of Nayarit, where the water level has dropped to less than 10% of the usual amount. The swamps, vital for the turtles’ survival, are rapidly drying up, exacerbating the already critical situation. Additionally, raging wildfires have devastated habitats, claimed lives, and destroyed valuable ecosystems.

Finally, a sister species of K. vogti, Kinosternon chimalhuaca, has been found in the area. Though not native, its presence poses a threat of hybridization, presenting an additional challenge to the already difficult existence of K. vogti. Faced with these adversities, urgent action is needed to preserve these unique dwarfs and their habitats.

THE PROJECT

It is our goal to prevent the imminent extinction of this species, which is mainly caused by severe habitat destruction. Turtle Island and its partners analyzed the key threats such as roadkill and significant loss of habitat.

In February 2023, to avoid further roadkill, Turtle Island and the CUC installed a turtle fence with pitfall traps along the road previously noted to cause high mortality.

In February 2024, a team from Turtle Island, led by Torsten Blanck, once again traveled to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to now erect a professional amphibian/reptile protection fence along roads. The first migrating mud turtles have already migrated and could be brought to the university campus, where they increase our breeding group. A conservation breeding station for at least 100 breeding animals is planned on the CUC site. We also plan to acquire and protect some of the last remaining sites.

THE RESULTS

It is our goal to prevent the imminent extinction of this species, which is mainly caused by severe habitat destruction. Turtle Island and its partners analyzed the key threats such as roadkill and significant loss of habitat.

In February 2023, to avoid further roadkill, Turtle Island and the CUC installed a reptile exclusion fence with pitfall traps along the road previously noted to cause high mortality.

In February 2024, a team from Turtle Island, led by Torsten Blanck, once again traveled to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to now erect a professional amphibian/reptile exclusion fence along roads. The first migrating Vallarta Mud turtles have already migrated and were rescued and brought to the university campus, where they join the assurance group of rescued turtles.

A conservation breeding center for at least 100 animals is planned on the CUC site. We also plan to acquire and protect some of the last remaining sites.

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