HOW DO YOU FIND A PASCAGOULA SAWBACK?
The rain had turned to a gentle drizzle when nature videographer Ian O'Briant asked, "So is this what you recommend for a meaningful wildlife experience?"
We were sitting in a small aluminum boat steadily bailing ankle-deep water from our craft. With the help of distant lightning from another approaching storm we occasionally caught a glimpse of each other's faces. We were on a long, lonely, uninhabited section of the Leaf River in Mississippi. Our colleagues in the other boat were disappearing from sight as they rounded a bend upstream, so I started the outboard motor and told Ian I would answer him later.
The mood of the Leaf River varies depending on time, place, and circumstance. Seen from an aerial view on Google Earth, the river looks like a braided rope in alternating black and white. The white sections are magnificent sandbars where turtles lay their eggs. The dark sections are wooded cut banks where swirling water carves away at cliffs formed by a rock known as soapstone, in which talc is a primary ingredient. The water depth in the river ranges from barely enough to cover your toes to deeper than an eight-foot dip net held at arm's length.
River eventually merges with the Chickasawhay River to form the Pascagoula
River, which in turn flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Collectively they
have the distinction of being the only place in the world where the Pascagoula
map turtle lives; it dwells alongside another species known as the yellow-blotched
map turtle. Turtle biologists refer to both species as "sawbacks"
because of the jagged line of teethlike spines that run down the center
of the top shell. Both species are adapted to live in river systems with
fast currents that are not interrupted by dams.
Planning for this trip had begun weeks earlier when my son suggested we take his son to Mississippi to see if we could catch a Pascagoula sawback. The species had been declared "critically endangered" by some authorities but had not become officially protected, so we still had an opportunity to catch-and-release. Mike Dorcas of Davidson College and his son, Zach, joined us. We also invited Will Selman, a wildlife biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, to join us. Will had conducted his doctoral work on Pascagoula River turtles and knew the system well. A good guide can greatly enhance such an adventure.
The most common species in the river, the beautiful yellow-blotched sawback, is on the federal endangered species list. The Pascagoula sawback, also a gem of a turtle, is seen less often but is not protected. The night we arrived we saw only the federally protected turtles, but we caught several watersnakes and heard bird-voiced treefrogs.
Despite a heavy fog that rolled across the river the next morning, Will was able to use a stealth technique to swim slowly upstream and grab a Pascagoula sawback that was basking on a log. Having achieved our goal of capturing, photographing, and releasing what may soon become one of the rarest turtles in America, we all relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the day looking at snakes, wading birds, fish, numerous species of clams and mussels, and other turtles. We did not see another person or a boat on the river until we were leaving in late afternoon.
I never got
around to answering Ian's question about what I would recommend for a
meaningful wildlife experience. But I'm pretty sure that by the end of
the trip he had warmed to the idea that an outing on a wild southern river
just might be an excellent choice.
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