URI students’ research finds illegal sale of pet turtles in U.S. has found a niche on the web

KINGSTON, R.I. – Jan. 30, 2023 – Nearly 50 years after a federal law banned the sale of hatchling turtles because of public health concerns, online pet dealers in the U.S. continue to get around the regulations, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Rhode Island, working with a colleague from the University of Richmond.

In a survey of online websites, the researchers found hundreds of active sales of turtles smaller than 4 inches despite U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations. The researchers’ paper, “Online sale of small turtles circumvents public health regulations in the United States,” was published in December in PLoS One, a peer-reviewed, open-access science journal.

“It was just crazy how accessible these sales were,” said Juliana Marcotrigiano ’22 of Cranford, New Jersey, a recent graduate in wildlife and conservation biology. “Anyone could just go online and buy a turtle despite the ban and whether the turtle was critically endangered. It was that easy. It was kind of daunting to see.”

Marcotrigiano was one of four URI undergraduate students to take part in the study, along with Lauren Montague ’22 of Newtown, Connecticut; Niamh Keane ’23 of Medford, Massachusetts; and Hannah Marquardt ’22 of Manassas, Virginia. Nancy Karraker, a URI professor in natural resources sciences, and Jennifer A. Sevin, a visiting lecturer in biology at the University of Richmond, oversaw the project.

According to the paper, hatchling turtles became increasingly popular in the U.S. in the 1960s and ’70s, growing to annual sales of about 15 million turtles. By the early 1970s, about 4% of U.S. households owned a turtle.

At the same time, pet turtles were associated with outbreaks of salmonellosis, a serious intestinal illness caused by Salmonella bacteria. About 280,000 cases were documented annually, especially among children because of poor hygiene after handling turtles or putting small turtles in their mouths. In 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibited the sale of live turtles smaller than 4 inches in size.

With Salmonella outbreaks tied to turtles still occurring, the URI students wanted to discover the availability of pet turtles online – an area overlooked by previous research, according to the study. During the spring and fall of 2021, the students monitored a total of 16 websites that openly advertised and sold turtles of less than 4 inches in size.

In all, they documented 515 listings for sales of turtles in violation of federal and state regulations. Only about half of the websites included warnings about the health risks or reported the regulations banning the sale of hatchlings as pets.

“We know that people sell plenty of things illegally and wildlife is part of that,” said Montague, a recent graduate in environmental science and management. “So, what really surprised me was how easy it was to find these websites and the fact that some of the sites try to cover their tracks by stating that they only sell the turtles for educational purposes, which is exempt in the law. But they don’t verify that with the buyer.”

“The research was interesting. I had always thought of research for environmental sciences as something done in the field or the lab,” said Keane, who is majoring in wildlife and conservation biology. “Conducting the research entirely online was really interesting and eye-opening into what research I could do in the future.”

The students concluded that turtle sales are part of a thriving online wildlife trade in the U.S., owing to the continued popularity of pet turtles and challenges enforcing the federal regulation in most states. They called for a public health campaign to educate the public about the health concerns.

“I think the most important conclusion from our study is that sales of these turtles on the internet are not monitored or reported,” said Marquardt, a recent graduate in environmental science and management. “The sites are not held to standards that would keep the public safe. Consumers should also be doing research on who they are buying from and the health risks.”

The students took part in the research project through a class with Karraker on wildlife trafficking – part of a project that created a national network of 30 colleges and universities promoting education in wildlife trade and trafficking and expanding research opportunities to all undergraduates in biology education.

Karraker said the class allows students to experience research from start to finish – coming up with a research question, learning how to collect data to answer that question, writing a paper and giving a presentation to classmates on their research. On Sundays for an entire semester, the team met with Karraker in the URI Carothers Library and Learning Commons, discussing their progress and learning to write a paper that could be considered for publication in a scientific journal.

“This just demonstrates that if you give undergraduate students a chance to do authentic research in their classes, it’s amazing the things they can do and the progress they can make,” Karraker said. “Now these young women are going to start their careers or head off to graduate school with a publication on their resume. As somebody who takes graduate students, if I see an undergraduate that has a publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal on their resume, I’m going to grab them because that says they’ve already got some pretty in-depth experience in research.”

Marcotrigiano said the project taught her a lot about the publication process and how to write a scientific paper. “This was probably my biggest accomplishment other than graduating to date,” added Montague. “I’m so happy people are actually reading it. That’s one of the coolest things. It was very exciting to get published. And then when you see we’ve had over 700 readers, that just blows it out of the water.”

The four URI students, who received a URI undergraduate research grant for the project, are the first in the network to publish their work, but Karraker says more will be coming.

Karraker, Sevin, Meredith Gore of the University of Maryland, and Christina Romagosa of the University of Florida – all researchers in wildlife trade and trafficking – established the network through a seed grant from the National Science Foundation, part of its Research Coordination Networks in Undergraduate Biology Education. Their network is called NEWT: Network Exploring Wildlife Trade.

Educators across NEWT incorporate educational training on wildlife trade and trafficking in their undergraduate biology classes. Karraker and her colleagues created the curriculum for the network, which includes the impacts of trade and trafficking on wildlife populations, establishment of invasive species, contributions to zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, and how trade and trafficking impact people, communities and livelihoods.

“We did some prior research and found that fewer than 1% of universities and colleges in the U.S. offer any kind of course on wildlife trade and trafficking even though it is a big issue impacting biodiversity around the world,” Karraker said.

While increasing research opportunities for students is a key goal, the network’s legacy may be the educational materials and research activities that have been developed, she said. The materials are being archived on QUBES, a networking site for STEM educators, and will soon be available to teachers everywhere.

“What that means is somebody in Saudi Arabia who teaches biology can go and grab the materials and use them in their class,” she said, “or in places around the world that don’t have easy access to resources.”