FLAGSTAFF – In the backyard of a Flagstaff home, the grass on the lawn has an unusual pattern: Very long on the shady side, then gradually shortening until it ends in green stubble on the sunny side at the fence.
“That’s the tortoise effect,” explained Jeffrey Lovich, a local ecologist who has specialized in the study of turtles for 30 years. “Their diet is grass.”
The odd lawn-mowing job is executed by his three pet turtles, all African leopard tortoises – “Tortie,” 16 years old and 25 pounds, and “Boone” and “Scoot,” both 7 years old and about 2 pounds each.
Ever since his father dropped a box turtle in his bath when he was 6 years old, Lovich has been fascinated by turtles.
He has parlayed that passion into a career as a much-respected tortoise expert, including a current research project documenting native Sonora mud turtles at Montezuma Well in the Verde Valley.
Lovich has spoken up for turtles in 75 scientific articles and in four books, including a standard reference book, “Turtles of the United States and Canada” (1994). He was also on a recent PBS “Nature” documentary on reptiles and an NBC “Nightly News” feature on desert tortoises.
“It’s all because turtles are so great,” Lovich said. “Some of the species are like living jewels. They have amazing color and geometry. It’s so easy to work with animals who are universally loved and appreciated.”
One unique feature of the turtle is its morphology.
“It’s the only animal that’s ever lived that has their shoulder blades and hips inside their rib cages,” he said. “Turtles have pulled those in; that’s why their legs stick out.”
Before going to Flagstaff four years ago, Lovich completed a 15-year study of aquatic turtles in the eastern United States and a 10-year study of desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert of California.
“It’s so weird that we ended up in Flagstaff, because there are no native turtles here,” said Lovich, who is an adjunct assistant professor of biology at Northern Arizona University. “The closest turtles I know are down in Montezuma Well.”
The Montezuma Well study is a collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southwest Biological Science Center, where Lovich works as deputy center director, and the National Park Service staff at Montezuma Castle National Monument.
The study, funded by the Western National Park Association, started in April.
The problem at the well is caused by non-native slider turtles, which are native to the Mississippi River Valley and sometimes called “dime-store turtles.”
Slider turtles got into the well as discarded pets. Twice as large as the mud turtles, they can grow to the size of a dinner plate.
“So far, we’ve caught about 100 native Sonora mud turtles, and we’ve removed about eight of the red-eared sliders, which is one of the main goals of the project,” Lovich said.
The native turtles are being marked with identification notches, measured and given general health checks. The sliders, which are being adopted out, are proving hard to catch in the baited hoop traps.
Lovich said there are 300 species of turtles worldwide, with 55 in the United States, including the last two species discovered in this country by Lovich in 1992.
Many of these turtle species are fighting for survival and overall turtle statistics are sad, he said.
“Most of the world’s turtles are doing poorly,” Lovich said. “They’ve outlived the dinosaurs. They’re a remarkable success story, but they’re not doing a good job of surviving people.”
Turtles are located on every continent except Antarctica, he said.
The dangers facing turtles are shared by many other endangered animals.
“The news in ecology is not all good these days,” the ecologist said. “We’re worried about global warming, pollution, habitat destruction and overpopulation. Because ecologists are on the front lines of studying these things, we often become the equivalent of environmental coroners.”
Lovich is in the process of revising the reference book he originally wrote with Carl H. Ernst and Roger W. Barbour, renowned tortoise experts and mentors for the younger Lovich.
Barbour is deceased, but Ernst is still on the project.
“I wrote the introduction and the conservation section,” Lovich said. “I’ve been checking on how various species are going. It’s like watching an old friend die off. Turtles are not able to withstand current levels of exploitation and habitat destruction.”