All things considered, it's tough to be a turtle. And it's getting even tougher in urbanized areas.
That's why scientists nationwide - including Whit Gibbons of the Savannah River Ecology Lab in Aiken County - are joining forces to study the subtle decline of reptiles and amphibians.
While people have been striving for years to save rain forests, whales and the more visible icons of biodiversity, the gradual disappearance of snakes, salamanders and lizards is just beginning to attract concern.
"Why is it happening? Nobody knows," Dr. Gibbons said. "While we can focus on why some animals disappear, there are no clearcut reasons for others. But we can assume we're guilty - somehow."
Dr. Gibbons is a founding member of Partners in Reptile and Amphibian Conservation, which includes 170 universities, museums and natural resource agencies worldwide. Locally, Dr. Gibbons and his colleagues want to learn more about how development and urbanization contribute to the decline of reptiles and amphibians.
Box turtles, for example, might live a half century or more if left alone. But in areas dotted with subdivisions and bisected with curbed roads and storm drains, their life expectancy is much shorter.
The gentle reptiles get run over by lawnmowers, squashed whilecrossing roads or simply die of starvation after tumbling into storm drains. Their reproduction is hampered by pesticides and fertilizer runoff, and many perish in summer heat because they can't get out of curbed roadways.
The box turtle also suffers from overharvesting. So many were harvested in Louisiana for the pet trade in China and Japan that the state's Legislature decided to regulate harvests.
"Louisiana is a good barometer of the problem," Dr. Gibbons said. "Now that they have that law, the pressure on box turtles increases elsewhere."
Amphibians also are vanishing. Locally, the once-common tiger salamander is becoming scarce or nonexistent in many parts of its traditional range. As usual, people are to blame.
"They have to have a small wetland to live, an area that dries up periodically and one that has no fish," Dr. Gibbons said. Such areas frequently fall victim to development.
Tree frogs are declining, too, in part because of their extreme susceptibility to reproductive problems associated with oil and gas runoff from roadways.
"We fragment a habitat each time we build a road," Dr. Gibbons said.
Even something as benign as outdoor housecats can harm the environment. Such pets kill untold millions of lizards, snakes and other animals annually.
Although urbanization is partly responsible for many problems, some wildlife seems to vanish from all areas - urban and rural.
The Southern hognose snake, for example, has inexplicably vanished from most of its natural habitat. Locally, it is found only within the grounds of Savannah River Site and Fort Gordon, both of which are protected areas.
"There has not been one seen in Alabama and Mississippi in 18 years," Dr. Gibbons said. "In Georgia, over at least half the state, they haven't been seen in five years.
Dr. Gibbons said he hopes to recruit developers with an interest in conservation to join Partners in Reptile and Amphibian Conservation's research.
"We need more developers involved in PARC," he said. "We'd like to have them educate people who work with reptile and amphibian conservation. They need to help us understand what we need to know."
Scientists understand the need for development and want to learn better ways to reduce the impact on the environment, he said.
"PARC is trying to come in between the two extremes," Dr. Gibbons said. "We aren't trying to preserve everything, but we can't develop everything either."
Development that coexists with wildlife will become more valuable because people will want to live there, Dr. Gibbons said.
Some developers already have learned that lesson.
The Bartram Trail development off Columbia Road near Patriots Park is an example of an innovative blend of nature and growth.
"We expect to start development on first phase in October," said Turner Simkins, vice president of Blanchard and Calhoun Real Estate.
Although the development will include 754 houses on 900 acres, the concept includes a 200-acre nature park in the subdivision's core.
"Fingers come off the park to integrate it through the entire community," he said. "Even the landscaping will concentrate on native plants."
The objective, he said, is to promote a "zeroscape concept" with the least possible impact on the environment.
"We hope to use fewer chemicals, need less mowing, less irrigation. All of this is trying to dovetail with the conservation community concept," Mr. Simkins said.
Here are some suspected reasons for the decline of reptiles and amphibians in the area:
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222.
Savannah River Ecology Laboratory Herpetology Lab:
Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation - PARC:
Reptiles and Amphibians of the SRS:
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