Great wildlife biologists are foremost great animal enthusiasts, people who get off on encountering cranes or mountain lions or, in John Behler’s case, snakes and frogs and turtles. The few I’ve known have held on to a capacity to be delighted by nature, not just the exotic but also the ordinary beauties and surprises that come close to home. John Behler — the curator of herpetology for the Wildlife Conservation Society, who died last week at age 62 — was responsible for great conservation victories in Madagascar and Southeast Asia, and he co-wrote The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles & Amphibians. But he studied spotted turtles for years in a county park a short drive from his home, and he could be as enthusiastic as a kid — albeit a well-educated kid — when he made a discovery in his neighborhood.
That neighborhood was northern Westchester County, just north of New York City. It’s an area where large-lot development has done severe damage to local biodiversity. The spotted turtles that Behler was studying, along with box turtles and wood turtles, have undergone a long-term, non-cyclical decline, as Michael Klemens, a Bronx Zoo colleague of Behler’s, characterizes it, because of suburbanization.
About a year and a half ago I found myself on a field trip with Behler (whom I had first met and interviewed back in 1983, when I was writing about bog turtles) and some others, on a big wooded tract in his town. It was late May, warm and humid. A brook bisected the property, and Behler was saying there was a good chance that wood turtles — which need healthy streams, fields, and forest — would be living there. As we stepped over a stream, we looked up and saw one of our companions holding a turtle.
Behler smiled. “You have a wood turtle? I called it!”
He took the turtle, looked it over, and began to tell us about it. It was a male — he knew because the plastron was concave so it would fit into place over a female’s shell when it mounted her. He looked at the annuli, or growth rings, on the plastron and said it was more than 30 years old. He turned it right side up. One front leg had been “amputated,” he said, probably gnawed off by a raccoon. He looked in the turtle’s face.
“This is a handsome animal,” he said. Handsome, but a messy eater: Behler noticed a yellowish slime on its face.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he said, “but it just ate a slug and the slug’s name is Arion subfuscus.”
We were standing at the edge of a grassy opening in the woods that was maybe an acre in size. Soon we found a box turtle, a female, and then a female wood turtle. Behler, who was wearing a Wildlife Conservation Society baseball cap and had binoculars hanging from his neck, stuck a finger under the wood turtle’s shell, at the rear leg.
“She’s got eggs in there,” he said. “She’s about two weeks from depositing them.”
He was telling us the wood turtle was more than 20 years old when someone found another box turtle, and then another, and then a wood turtle and another box turtle.
“I’ve never seen this many, this close together,” the curator of herpetology for the Wildlife Conservation Society said. And when we found a fourth wood turtle (but before we found a fifth), he looked at me, enthused but now serious too: “Are you taking notes? This is a remarkable find.”
Indeed, I had been taking notes. Later that day I typed them up and e-mailed him, to check my facts. Here’s what he wrote back:
You are correct, we saw 3 male and 2 female wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta) – formerly Clemmys insculpta, and 2 m/2f box turtles. I palpated all female wood and eastern box turtles that we saw.
He then referred to his spotted-turtle research in the county park that I mentioned earlier.
I have worked thousands of hours in the farm pond, vernal pools, and streamlets throughout the 777-acre [county park] property since 1991. While I have focused on spotted turtles there, I am always on the lookout for box turtles and other species. Since 1991, I’ve not seen any wood turtles at all there. And I have seen less than a dozen box turtles there. So the chelonian events of today are unprecedented for me in Westchester.
I view the discovery of so many turtles over such a short time period as an extraordinary event. Not only were these species confirmed for the site, it is a bonus to learn that good populations of these dramatically declining species remain in the Town …. We also discovered a major nesting area for them as both species typically position themselves along the edges of openings prior to nesting in them in June.
All in all, it was an awesome day with lots of witnesses! Terrific!
Someone had told me that Behler had a bad heart, but he was thin and wiry and I had a hard time believing it. We exchanged emails occasionally over the ensuing months. I had wanted to talk to him about the bog-turtle research he had done further north, and we agreed to get together at some point for an interview.
I wish we had, but we never did. The bog turtles made for a sad story anyway: In the two decades since I had first talked to him about them, the number of bog turtles on the site he had been studying fell from 30 to 3 because of poor habitat management. But that leaves me with a better memory, not of somebody discouraged by a conservation loss but of a great wildlife biologist who could still be excited by what he found close to home.
“The chelonian events of today are unprecedented for me in Westchester,” John Behler wrote.
They were unprecedented for me too.