The mock turtle syndrome: genetic identification of turtle meat purchased in the south-eastern United States of America

Authors

  • Joseph Roman,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida, 303 Newins-Ziegler Hall, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA
      Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, 16 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. Tel: 617-496-8667; Fax: 617-495-1958; E-mail: jroman@oeb.harvard.edu.
    Search for more papers by this author
    • Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, 16 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. Tel: 617-496-8667; Fax: 617-495-1958; E-mail: jroman@oeb.harvard.edu.

  • Brian W. Bowen

    1. Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32606, USA
    Search for more papers by this author

Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, 16 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. Tel: 617-496-8667; Fax: 617-495-1958; E-mail: jroman@oeb.harvard.edu.

Abstract

Much of the demand for turtle meat in North America and Europe during the past four centuries has been met using green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and other marine turtles. As stocks of marine turtles dwindled, harvest of the alligator snapping turtle (Macroclemys temminckii), the largest freshwater turtle in North America, increased in the south-eastern USA. As a result, this species has declined and is now protected in every state of the USA except Louisiana. There is concern that the remaining legal trade in turtle products may serve as a cover for illegally harvested species. To assess the composition of species in commerce, we purchased 36 putative turtle meat products in Louisiana and Florida. Using cytochrome b and control region sequences of the mitochondrial genome, we identified 19 samples as common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), three as Florida softshell (Apalone ferox), one provisionally as softshell turtle (Apalone sp.), one as alligator snapping turtle, and eight as American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). It appears that M. temminckii is no longer the predominant species in markets of Louisiana. The presence of alligator meat in a quarter of the samples indicates that the trade in turtle products is not entirely legitimate. As is often the case for unsustainable wildlife harvests, large, esteemed species, such as green turtle and alligator snapper, have been replaced by smaller, more-abundant or mislabelled species, a phenomenon we refer to as the mock turtle syndrome.

Ancillary