Using Turtles As A Measure of Stream Restoration Success

December 15, 2014

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084,

Note: Maura Dudley is available for additional comment at (412) 398-1101 or Curtis Richardson is available for additional comment at (919) 613-8006 or

By Kati Moore (MEM ’16)
Nicholas School Communications Assistant

DURHAM, N.C. – Though many stream restoration projects are implemented across North Carolina and the Southeast every year in an effort to conserve and restore ecosystems, little is known about the overall ecological impacts of these projects.

A new study by researchers at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and the Duke University Wetland Center explores the potential ecological impacts of stream restoration by observing turtle abundance and species composition.

The researchers, led by Maura Dudley (MEM ’10), caught and released turtles at six restored streams and six comparable natural streams across seven counties in the NC Piedmont. They found, on average, more than twice as many turtles at restored streams compared to natural streams. They found seven different species of turtles in restored streams and five species in natural streams.

The study also measured a variety of habitat characteristics. Researchers found that restored streams had lower levels of phosphorous, higher mean canopy cover, and lower levels of dissolved oxygen. There were also large differences in plant species between the sites: of the 141 species observed, only 23 were found at both restored and natural streams.

Previous studies have looked at other characteristics of restored streams, such as macro-invertebrate abundance and water quality. This is the first study to look at an animal high up in the food web.

“We looked at turtles because they’re important components of aquatic ecosystems,” said Dudley, who now studies stream ecosystems as a PhD candidate in the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia. Turtle abundance and species composition can be an indicator of how the ecosystem as a whole is functioning, she said.

“Turtles play a much more important role than people give them credit for,” said Curtis J. Richardson, director of the Duke Wetland Center and a professor of resource ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Future research on turtles in restored stream habitats could be important both for assessing success of restoration projects as well as turtle conservation.  “I think that it’s really important for managers and people who are interested in turtle conservation to understand what role these restored habitats are playing,” said Dudley.

The study was published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Wetlands. The research was funded by the Duke University Wetland Center Endowment and the NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

Mengchi Ho, associate in research at the Duke University Wetland Center, co-authored the study.

Citation: “Riparian Habitat Dissimilarities in Restored and Reference Streams Are Associated with Differences in Turtle Communities in the Southeastern Piedmont,” Maura Patricia Dudley, Mengchi Ho, and Curtis J. Richardson, published Nov. 30, 2014, in Wetlands. DOI: 10.1007/s13157-014-0603-5
Link to article here.