Turtles turning up in Anchorage : Are they surviving the Alaska winter ?
A 7-inch-long male red-eared slider turtle was pulled out of Chester Creek by a wildlife biologist Tuesday, another indication that Alaska’s largest city might have a turtle problem — or more exactly, a people-turtle problem.
Turtles are not native to Alaska. Except for a few wayward sea turtles occasionally sighted in Southeast Alaska’s coastal waters, the state hasn’t been home to native reptiles since the Cretaceous Period — about 68 million years ago. Wildlife biologists believe the turtles are being introduced to Anchorage’s lakes and creeks by people who no longer want them as pets.
The terrapin caught Tuesday evening was quickly named « Chester, » after the creek in which it was found. It was the second turtle Alaska Herpetological Society president Josh Ream had seen in just two days. A female red-eared slider, caught by a passerby on Campbell Creek near Lake Otis Parkway, was brought to the Anchorage offices of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game one day earlier. But even more of the turtles — named for distinctive red patches on their heads and an ability to quickly slide into the water — have been popping up around Southcentral.
Red-eared sliders are native to the Southern and Eastern United States and Mexico, but breeding populations can be found in urban areas as far north as Ontario, Canada. The red-eared slider is the most popular pet turtle in the country and the most traded terrapin in the world. It’s among the world’s 100 most invasive species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Ream doesn’t believe the Anchorage turtles are breeding, but thinks some may have survived the recently mild Southcentral Alaska winters. The cold-blooded animals can survive in some northern latitudes by digging into the mud to create an air pocket under the ice and hibernating. As evidence that turtles are overwintering in Alaska, Ream points to a red-eared slider found by a local teacher and her students in early spring of 2013, just as the ice went out. That turtle was discovered half-buried in the mud of Anchorage’s Goose Lake.
« It’s because of the way that we are finding them and how early in the spring that we are finding them, » Ream said. « The one in Goose Lake had its head … caked in mud. The kids pulled it out and they said it looked dead, and it started to slowly come back to life. It was a semicold day. »
Reptiles gone wild
Red-eared slider turtles aren’t the only reptiles that have been found in Alaska. A Juneau man caught a snapping turtle in 2011, and another snapping turtle was found in Homer in 2002. A blue-spotted salamander was caught after spending a winter hibernating under a Chugiak flower pot in 2013. Perhaps the most shocking find was an escaped, 5-foot-long pet American alligator that was discovered in a ditch in 2013, also in a Chugiak neighborhood. And Ream said several snakeskins were found in Anchorage a few years ago. He believes the snake was an escaped pet that likely died when temperatures dropped in the fall.
All of the animals are believed to have been introduced to the Alaska outdoors by humans.
By far, the most common Alaska reptile sighting is of the red-eared slider. Ream estimates he gets about a half-dozen turtle-related calls each year. Some, like the ones from Goose Lake and Campbell and Chester creeks, are captured. But many others aren’t. Ream said a Fish and Game employee saw another turtle earlier this summer at Taku Lake in South Anchorage, but wasn’t able to catch it.
Ream encouraged anyone who spots a turtle to call Fish and Game or the Alaska Herpetological society so it can be removed. Ream said turtles can carry diseases that might spread to Alaska’s native population of frogs. Turtles also compete with local animals for food.