Turtle eggs found near Columbia lake belong to non-native species

Nine small turtle eggs dug from the shores of Columbia's Lake Elkhorn in early July have produced penny-sized, non-native false map turtles normally found along the Mississippi River, raising concern that the species may have invaded Columbia.

"Maybe there is a breeding pair of turtles in the lake," said Ray Bosmans of Clarksville, president of the Howard based Mid-Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society, but that's not clear. Because everything about turtles seems to move in slow motion, Bosmans said the mother could have mated more than a year before she laid the eggs, perhaps before someone left her in the wilds of Columbia.

The false map turtle is a popular pet-store variety, he said, and sometimes people abandon pets they no longer want — a practice biologists detest because it changes natural local ecosystems. Turtles sometimes live to be 60 years or older, something some people fail to realize when they buy one as a child's pet. The false map turtle has zigzag yellow markings on each side of its head and an easily recognizable pointed ridge at the top of its shell.

"Nobody will know for sure, until they catch another" false map turtle, he said. It is also not certain whether the appearance of the turtles is anything to be concerned about.

"It's not like the snakehead," he said, referring to the invasive, crawling fish species. "[The turtles] may not cause a problem."

Bosmans said he was pleased all the eggs hatched successfully, even one that had been "dented" a bit in the earthen hole where their mother placed them on June 17. He'll raise all nine, he said, until they reach about 4 inches in width and are old enough for adoption. That could take up to two years, he said.

Bosmans said the baby turtles were hatched during the last days of August, while he was out of town.

Howard County Recreation and Parks naturalist Sue Muller dug the eggs up weeks after Kathy Colston, a town resident who often walks the path around the 37-acre lake, saw the ridge-backed mother turtle laying her eggs, and took pictures of her before she crawled back to the water. Turtles abandon their eggs and do not raise their young.

Muller said she'd like everyone in the area who is interested to keep an eye out for the unusual-looking turtles and snap a photo if the chance comes along.

"Of more concern is are we going to find them all over the state," she said, noting that someone in Frederick County recently found a false map turtle, too. "We may not know for a decade or two the impact they would have on native turtles."

Muller is helping state natural resources officials do a five-year study of reptiles and amphibians in an effort to map which species are where in the state compared to 1975, when the last statewide survey was done.

Anyone with a turtle photo can e-mail it to Muller at smuller@howardcountymd.gov.


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