Declining Aquifer Threatens Turtles In Santa Fe River

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alligatorsnapper sun In: Declining Aquifer Threatens Turtles In Santa Fe River | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River


This die-off, which scientists think was caused by a changing climate and declining aquifer levels, altered the river’s water quality indefinitely.

The following article, from the Gainesville Sun on Feb. 1, 2019, shows that the imperiled alligator snapper is at risk due to man -caused lowering of the Florida aquifer.  But in spite of this our water managers burn the midnight oil to figure out how to lower the rivers and springs just a little bit more to accommodate continued ground water withdrawals.

Rather than seeing what they can do to restore our impaired springs and rivers to their original flow and clarity, they see it as their mission to take it down just as far as they can and still get by with it.  They they try just a little more.  In order to do this they ignore facts and studies and cherry pick the info they want to present.  Read the reports on MFLS for the Rainbow River.  The water district did shameful and despicable  things to get their way.

The old cliche  “death by a thousand cuts,” is now a thousand water permits.

Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-


Alligator snapping turtle’s health relies on Santa Fe River

By Max Chesnes


The first thing Travis Thomas remembers is the claws. Five sharp talons that could pierce through your body if you weren’t careful. Then came the pointed shell, and a horned beak that could bite through your fingers like a carrot.

The water in the upper Santa Fe River was pitch black on this summer day in 2005. It was as if someone poured 200 million gallons of dark roast coffee into the snaking waterway and left it untouched for centuries.

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Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

  • Florida considers it a species of special concern
  • It’s the largest freshwater turtle in North America and males can get to 249 pounds, females to 62 pounds.
  • Its diet consists of plants and animals such as fish, musk turtles and acorns
  • In Florida, it’s found in the Panhandle and Big

Bend regions, from the Escambia River east to the Suwannee River. Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission

Researcher Travis Thomas holds an alligator snapping turtle. [PHOTO COURTESY OF TRAVIS THOMAS]

Thomas traveled to the swampy Santa Fe River with his zoology professor, Jerry Johnston, with only one mission in mind: Find the beasts.

“Let’s see if we can find some giant turtles,” Johnston remembers telling Thomas. “It’ll be an adventure.”

Soon, the pair was placing 4-foot hoop nets up and down the river, anchoring them to the riverbed and baiting them with fish carcasses. They left the traps overnight, and let the nocturnal turtles — hungry for an easy meal — do the rest.

By morning, Thomas came upon a trap heavier than the others. He heaved the trap closer to the boat, and suddenly, like the quick snap of a beak, a 105-pound alligator snapping turtle rose to the surface. His first catch ever.

This one turtle, a mossy and fierce looking thing, was the very beginning of Thomas’ journey. Now a doctoral student at the University of Florida with two newly named snapping turtle species under his belt, Thomas never forgot his first catch.

“I kind of just stumbled upon it,” Thomas said. “And now here I am.”

Based in Cedar Key, the 38-year-old decided to devote his life’s work to the study of amphibians and reptiles after that first adventure with his passionate professor, he said. Growing up along the Suwannee River, the young, humble Thomas had no idea he could pursue a career studying wildlife.

“I didn’t even know if I’d graduate high school,” Thomas remembers. “And now I’m involved in management and research discussions around the state.”

  • •• In 2012, a massive dieoff of submerged aquatic plants in the lower Santa Fe River left herbivorous turtles searching for food.

This die-off, which scientists think was caused by a changing climate and declining aquifer levels, altered the river’s water quality indefinitely.

Some turtles traveled up to 25 miles away from the river just to find food, the Santa Fe College Biology and Zoology professor Johnston said.

“After 2012, the river has transformed into something different,” Johnston said. “Now we need to have a complete, 100 percent protection on these turtles.”

Starting in March, just as the alligator snapping turtles begin their nesting season, Johnston will begin a three-year study to measure the die-off’s impact on the animals. With 114 tagged animals in the river, Johnston aims to compare the turtles’ abundance, weight and reproduction frequency to past studies from as early as 2005.

As the study progresses, researchers will trap up and down the river to catch, measure and release as many animals as possible, Johnston said. There are fewer than five other places on the planet with as much turtle diversity as the Santa Fe River Basin, resulting in a serious focus on the area.

While Johnston wants to remain hopeful, he fears the results may prove otherwise.

“I’m really nervous,” Johnston said. “The expectation is that there will be a negative impact on these turtles.”

With less clear water entering the springs than before, there’s less sunlight reaching the bottom of the riverbed. Without sunlight, aquatic plants stop growing.

“Which means there’s less food for the turtles,” Johnston said. “And that’s not good.”

  • •• In 2009, just three years before the Santa Fe River plant die-off,

alligator snapping turtles received their first lucky break from Florida’s government.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission passed sweeping regulations prohibiting the commercial harvesting of turtles and stated that “selling turtles taken from the wild is prohibited.”

Actively listed on the FWC’s imperiled species list since the legislation passed, the alligator snapping Turtle population saw its first glimpse of growth in 2009.

In the 1960s, the snapping turtle was actively hunted for its meat and was a main ingredient in Campbell’s Turtle Soup. The harvest ban promised an end to the turtle’s population depletion that occurred over several decades.

But when the die-off suddenly emerged, the snapping turtles were once again at risk.

“They’re stuck in these rivers,” Thomas said. “If something happened to the river, they’d be trapped there.”

The species is vulnerable because the river is vulnerable, Thomas said. Protecting the water means protecting the turtles.

Alligator snappers are important because they’re at the top of the food web and are a symbol of the Southeast, Thomas said. But not only that, they serve as an “ecosystem engineer” — a discovery Johnston and his team made when out in the field.

When measuring an individual turtle several years ago, one of Johnston’s volunteers noticed fruit seeds at the bottom of the animal’s plastic holding container. It appeared the animal was frightened and, doing as all animals do when scared, defecated in its bucket.

“We took the seeds back to our greenhouse and, sure enough, they started to grow.” Johnston said.

This one finding had extraordinary implications: Where a wild grape or persimmon seed normally floats down the river, an alligator snapping turtle brings these seeds upriver by way of its stomach. The result? Abundant forests up and down the river’s coastline. Turtle poop helps keep the river healthy.

“It was a wonderful step forward,” Johnston said. “This is a biodiversity hotspot for turtles.”

For all of these reasons and more, Johnston hopes his study will bring a newfound appreciation to alligator snapping turtles across the state.

When releasing turtles back into the river, Johnston never fails to turn his science into a “magical moment” of impromptu education. He will often pause his measurements to educate onlookers on the importance of conserving the snapping turtles.

“They’re actually pretty shy, cryptic animals that want to be left alone,” the researchers will tell bewildered passersby. “They’re just really neat animals.”

There are answers to be found within the Santa Fe River, and both Johnston and Thomas are excited to continue their work throughout the years, Johnston said.

“This is my entire life. I have several lifetimes worth of work that need to be done just in the Santa Fe River,” Johnston said. “I’m ready to begin.”

An alligator snapping turtle swims in a spring. [PHOTO COURTESY JERRY JOHNSTON]

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1 Comment

  1. Wow such gentle giants. Just learned a lot more why I love these prehistoric lookin turtles!👍 thank you so much for info. Have seen here where I live Lake Santa Fe👌✌️ Let me know how I can help bring awareness!! Any events coming up I can volunteer?!

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