After being granted critical habitat protection earlier in 2020, the Sonoyta mud turtle (Kinosternon sonoriense longifemorale) faces a new threat: critically low water flow at the Quitobaquito Spring’s source and continuing drought and regional groundwater pumping. In the midst of growing geopolitical and ecological challenges in the borderlands, ten healthy Sonoyta mud turtles hatched at the Desert Museum, proving these resilient reptiles are ready to keep fighting.
Located in Organ Pipe National Monument, Quitobaquito Springs is a true oasis in the desert, a rare freshwater source that now drains into a man-made pond just a few hundred feet from the U.S./Mexico border. Quitobaquito has been an important source of life-saving water for wildlife throughout the generations. It is also the last remaining U.S. natural habitat for the critically endangered Sonoyta mud turtle, of which about 150 individuals remain, as well as the Sonoyta pupfish, who also call Quitobaquito home. A subspecies of the Sonoran mud turtle, the Sonoyta mud turtle was granted critical habitat protection through the Endangered Species Act earlier this year, after three years on the endangered species list, and twenty years as a candidate for listing.
Meet the Baby Qs
The ten Sonoyta mud turtles born in the summer of 2020 at the Desert Museum offer more than smiles and squees at their exceptional cuteness—they also give us hope for the future of these near-extinct animals. Desert Museum staff affectionately call the newborn turtles Baby Qs, after their habitat at Quitobaquito. Overseeing the care of these Baby Qs is Keeper Courtney Christie, the HIIZ (Herpetology, Ichthyology, and Invertebrate Zoology) department’s Supervisory Assistant. Just three years ago the Museum became the first organization ever to successfully breed this subspecies in captivity! Keepers like Courtney keep busy studying, recording, and learning all they can about the proper care of these cuties.
The Desert Museum’s conservation activities at Quitobaquito Springs stretch back nearly twenty years. The Museum has been caring for an assurance population of Sonoyta mud turtles and pupfish since 2007, and in 2016 joined forces with Organ Pipe National Monument and Pinacate Biosphere Reserve in Sonora, Mexico to engage in collaborative conservation and educational activities around the Sonoyta mud turtle and pupfish as part of a National Park Service grant. Thus was born the 3 Parks: 1 Partnership collaboration. (Interested in learning more about the history of the 3 Parks: 1 Partnership collaboration? Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4!)
A Precarious Season Ahead
The major threats facing the Sonoyta mud turtle (tortuga de agua de Sonoyta) and Sonoyta Pupfish (cachorrito o pupo del Sonoyta) are familiar to many aquatic species living in the Sonoran Desert: decreased water flow in the Rio Sonoyta watershed due to drought and groundwater pumping, as well as the introduction of invasive species such as tilapia, mosquito fish, and the exotic plant tamarisk.
The borderlands of the Sonoran Desert face complex political challenges that exacerbate ongoing watershed decline and could have long-term impacts on an already fragile ecosystem. Despite the federal protections granted under the Endangered Species Act given to the 12.3 acres of critical habitat at Quitobaquito Springs, the Baby Qs’ home faces a new challenge: the waiving of environmental laws along the U.S./Mexico border in order to rush border wall construction just 100 yards away.
It is difficult to say yet exactly what the ecological impacts of border wall construction will be on Quitobaquito Springs. However, water-intensive cement mixing, building trenches, widening roads, and other construction activities of the border wall have already severely impacted sensitive ecological sites throughout the borderlands. This, combined with climatic changes including, most recently, record high temperatures and a dry summer, point to a precarious season ahead for the Quitobaquito Springs and its precious inhabitants like the Sonoyta mud turtle and pupfish.
Thanks to the dedicated staff at the Desert Museum and its friends in conservation science and advocacy, the Baby Qs still stand a fighting chance! The HIIZ keepers are closely monitoring the growth and health of the babies, tracking data like size, weight, and diet, that will help us to better understand these seldom studied animals. Keepers record how each individual turtle responds to different types of food at different times of day, and ensure their habitat is clean and free of detritus. Over time, a broad picture of the Baby Qs preferences emerges and helps inform the most excellent care possible.
As we share our findings with our partners and vice versa, together we work to develop a viable conservation plan for an uncertain future. Even in the face of political and cultural challenges, conservationists, ecologists, and community advocates will do everything they can to protect the Baby Qs, their wild cousins, and the desert oasis they call home.
Written by Elena Makansi.