George Phillips wrote his Masters Thesis about Pleistocene-aged, non-mammalian, vertebrate remains found in creeks that flow through the Alabama and Mississippi upper coastal plain, a region also known as the Black Prairie. Turtle shells are by far the most abundant remains found here because of preservational bias. Turtle shells are very durable, helping protect the reptile while they are alive. This durability also makes turtle shells more likely to survive the ravages of time when the bones of most other vertebrates disintegrate. The results of his study show that several species of turtles have experienced interesting range redistributions since the end of the Ice Age.
Dallas County, Alabama. Bogue Chitto Creek, located in this county, yields many Pleistocene fossil remains.
Blanding’s turtle (Emboidia blandingii) is an endangered species presently restricted to the upper Midwest and parts of New England. Most of this species’ present day range was under glacial ice during the Ice Age and thus uninhabitable. Remains of Blanding’s turtle can be found in Pleistocene deposits as far south as the Black Prairie region in Alabama. The presence of this species in Alabama suggests much cooler summers in the south during the Ice Age (though winters may have been as mild or just a little cooler than those of today). Blanding’s turtles may be unable to endure the long hot summers of the present day south, and this may be the limiting factor on their range today.
Blanding’s Turtle occurred in Alabama during the Ice Age but no longer ranges this far south.
Present day range of Blanding’s turtle. During the Ice Age about 70% of this territory was under glacial ice.
The wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) is another species of turtle with northern affinities that lived in Alabama (and other parts of the south) during the Ice Age. This species may also be unable to survive long hot summers.
Present day range map of the wood turtle. During the Ice Age >90% of this range was under glacial ice and this species retreated south. Longer hotter summers chased them back up north.
The only known Pleistocene-aged specimen of a musk turtle (Sternotherus carianitus) was found in Catalpa Creek, Alabama. Today, this species occurs to the west of this site. Its rarity in the fossil record is unexplained and is probably just due to chance. During the Pleistocene it apparently ranged further east than it does today. Any number of unknown reasons could explain its extirpation from the most eastern parts of its range–disease, excessive egg predation, or competition with other species of turtles.
Present day range map for musk turtle. They formerly ranged a little further east during the Pleistocene.
There are 3 species of red-bellied turtles. The Florida red-bellied turtle (Pseudemys concinna) is presently restricted to peninsular Florida, but Pleistocene-aged remains of this species have been found in Bartow County located in north Georgia. The Alabama red bellied turtle (Pseudemys alabamensis) is presently restricted to extreme southern Alabama and Mississippi. The red bellied turtle (P. rubriventris) is presently restricted to the mid-Atlantic states, but Pleistocene -aged remains of this species have been found in the upper coastal plain of Alabama. It’s likely these 3 species of red-bellied turtles diverged from 1 continuous population that existed before the Pleistocene-Holocene transition when for some unknown reason they became geographically isolated into their present day ranges. Their curious range distributions beg for a study of their molecular DNA. The 3 present day species represent a speciation event that may have occurred as recently as 10,000 years ago. I can’t determine why red-bellied turtles were extirpated from regions in between their present day ranges. Did overharvesting by humans play a role?
Present day range map for the mid-Atlantic red-bellied turtle (Pseudemys rubriventris) Remains of this species have been identified from Alabama.
Range map for Alabama red-bellied turtle. The Pleistocene/Holocene transition was likely a speciation event that caused the 3 species of red-bellied turtles to diverge.
An extinct Pleistocene subspecies of box turtle (Terapene Carolina putnami) was common in Alabama’s coastal plain. It was larger than present day box turtles but otherwise was similar. There is no direct evidence of gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) from the Black Prairie region during the Pleistocene, but a Pleistocene-aged specimen of an indigo snake was found in Bogue Chitto Creek located about 40 miles north of the present day range of this tortoise. Indigo snakes depend upon gopher tortoise burrows for shelter, so the presence of this snake suggests the presence of gopher tortoises nearby. Gopher tortoises require sandy soils for burrowing. They don’t burrow in the heavy upland clay soils so widespread in this region, but they may have burrowed in the alluvial (streamside) sands by the creek. Gopher tortoises require open environments where they can feed upon short sun-loving plants. The closure of the forest canopy would have caused their extirpation here.
Two scutes of the extinct giant tortoise (Hesperotestudo crassicutata) were found in this region. Scientists puzzle over the co-existence here of the cold adapted wood turtle and Blanding’s turtle with the giant tortoise, a species they assume required a frost free environment. I disagree with their assumption. I hypothesize giant tortoises were capable of surviving freezing temperatures by either burrowing underground, like their closest living relative (the gopher tortoise), or by utilizing burrows dug by giant ground sloths. If giant tortoises could survive mild frosts as I believe, this species could have co-existed in the same region as cold-adapted species of turtles. However, it’s just as likely their remains represent a warm climate phase, temporally distinct from when wood turtles and Blanding’s turtles roamed the creek bottoms. As far as I know, none of these specimens has been radio-carbon dated.
Species of turtle remains found in Pleistocene deposits here that still occur in the region include snapping turtle, alligator snapping turtle, spiny softshell, stinkpot, painted, slider, and Alabama map turtles.
“Paleofaunistics of Non-mammalian Vertebrates from the Late Pleistocene of the Mississippi Black Prairie”
North Carolina State Masters Thesis 2006