Meet the intermediate musk turtle, Alabama’s newest turtle species

Photo of an Intermediate musk turtle’s stunning carapace by John Trent  via Facebook

Peter Scott, a post doctoral scholar at UCLA, who received his PhD at the University of Alabama was not trying to discover a new species of turtle.

The impetus of his work was to find  out whether  the logger-head musk turtle was hybridizing with the stripe-necked turtle. When he looked at the hybrid zones between those two species with DNA studies, instead of finding a “hybrid” musk turtle, to his surprise he found a completely new species.

That turtle is now named the intermediate musk turtle.

Goal was not to find a new turtle

According to Scott, he was not trying to find a new turtle species.

“I never went out with a goal of describing a new turtle at all.  I really came to this with an open mind.  I thought all the previous biologist were correct.  When I got my data and started analyzing it, the data spoke and said this is worthy of special recognition.”

Alabama turtle
Photo by John Trent  via Facebook
Alabama ranks first nationally in number of turtle species

Finding a new species of turtle cements Alabama’s title as the center of turtle biodiversity in North America. Mark Bailey, the co-author of Turtles of Alabama explains.

“In our Turtles of Alabama book we list 40 distinct turtles (that includes species, subspecies, and genetic clades) native to Alabama, which is more than any other state. With the description of this additional species, we pull ahead of the pack even further with regard to turtle diversity. It’s important to emphasize this was not a turtle nobody knew about. It’s fairly common.”

turtle
Photo of the intermediate musk turtle by John Trent

And ecologically the intermediate musk turtle is significant.

Scott added, “What’s nice is the distribution of this turtle is shared by a lot of other aquatic biodiversity in Alabama, like freshwater snails, mussels and fish. They all have almost the exact distribution that is isolated in these specific watershed, so they have something special and interesting evolutionary going on in this system.”

 The turtle is endemic to the greater Choctawhatchee River and Escambia River basins.
Photo by Peter Scott
Cute and pugnacious
“An adult is 4 to 5 inches long, cute, pugnacious , big headed little animals, that are fun to see. You can see them walking a creek bottom or snorkling while they are out foraging on the river bottom, according to Scott

 

People recognize that they are intermediate morphologically between the stripe neck musk turtle and the loggerhead musk turtle.

Scott concluded, “Its good to know that we can describe new animals in our backyards, it reminds us why we need to be conscientious to what we are doing to our environment, because we might be erasing or hurting that something we don’t even know exist yet.”

 

Last month, Bham Now published a series of stories on Alabama’s biodiversity.  Check out our story on turtles and how our Alabama is the center of turtle biodiversity in North America.

Darters to turtles: Why Alabama’s aquatic biodiversity matters

Author: Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

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