This story is part of a special National Geographic News series on global water issues.
Something's lurking in that water hazard—and it's not just the errant balls of duffers. New research shows that golf courses can be havens for turtles, and may even attract a richer mix of species than ponds in seemingly more natural settings.
The findings are only the latest of a growing number of studies showing that golf courses—long derided by environmentalists for heavy use of water and pesticides—can provide valuable wildlife habitat in a rapidly urbanizing world.
No one advocates flattening an ancient woodland to build 18 new holes. But scientists say that a golf course in the right place, built and maintained in the right way, can be an oasis for creatures from bluebirds to beetles.
For the turtles of North Carolina, golf ponds "are providing something that other ponds are not," says University of Kentucky herpetologist Steven Price, a co-author of the two new turtle papers.
"So maybe they're the lesser of two evils."
Price and his colleagues sought to understand the fate of turtles in the Charlotte, North Carolina, metropolitan area, where galloping growth has swallowed 60 percent of the undeveloped land in some counties.
The researchers set out nets baited with tins of sardines in 20 local ponds. Some ponds were on golf courses, others in cattle pastures or neighborhood parks. The scientists checked the traps every other day, extracting any occupants by hand.
The surveys showed that two common species—the painted turtle and the slider—were just as abundant in golf course ponds as in farm ponds, according to a paper in the current issue of the Journal of Herpetology, while neighborhood ponds placed a distant third.
And golf course ponds boasted a richer variety of turtle species than farm and neighborhood ponds, because the area around golf course ponds tended to have better connections to other green space, the scientists report in an upcoming issue of the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.
It's not clear why more kinds of turtles hang out near the fairways than down at the local park. Perhaps it's because golf courses often boast multiple ponds and even lakes or streams. And the courses' large stretches of grass and field are good for turtle nests.
Hope for Turtles
The results "bring some hope," says Davidson College herpetologist Jacquelyn Guzy, who took part in the research.
"There's potential for [courses] to be really good habitat if they're managed properly" and contain enough suitable water and land, says Guzy.
Turtles aren't alone in enjoying a little time on the links. When researchers did a summary analysis of a host of studies comparing golf courses with other kinds of green space, they found that courses were more ecologically valuable than farmland in nearly 65 percent of the comparisons made in the studies. More surprisingly, golf courses outstripped state parks and nature reserves in ecological value in half the cases.
Part of the credit may go to groundskeepers, says Johan Colding of the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics in Stockholm and a co-author of the summary analysis, published in the journal Ecosystems in 2009. Wetlands that are left alone can fill with silt; golf course ponds aren't allowed to. And golf courses—at least the good ones—offer a wide variety of habitat.
"When you watch on television, you see fairways, because [professional golfers] play so well," Colding says. "But there are lots of out-of-bounds areas that are wild." A typical course is only 30 percent playable area, he says. The rest is water, forest, and other types of more natural land.
But Colding and other researchers also worry that developers will use the good news about golf courses to justify badly designed courses or courses where there shouldn't be any at all. A golf course built over natural marshes, or a largely treeless course with nothing but lawn, is no help to wildlife, the researchers say.
There are several groups that certify golf courses as environmentally friendly. But Price says he's not aware of studies of the certification programs, so it's not clear how rigorous such efforts are.
Even genuinely nature-friendly courses aren't much good for species with demanding lifestyles. The rare Blanding's turtle of the northeastern United States, for example, may wander from a temporary spring pool to a beaver pond to a shrubby wetland in just one season, says wildlife biologist Michael Marchand of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
The sliders and painted turtles abundant in the study ponds, by comparison, are not terribly picky.
But the most laid-back turtle is likely to flee—as quickly as a turtle can—a type of golf course that is becoming ever more popular: greens interspersed with condos. The North Carolina researchers found that courses with more housing inside their boundaries had fewer turtles, perhaps partly because houses mean more encounters with cars and with humans—such as the unknown person who beat a snapping turtle to death with a golf club last month on a Wisconsin golf course.
In neighborhoods built into a golf course, "people get a great view ... and it creates a parklike atmosphere," Price says. But "if we want to think about golf courses as wildlife habitat, we probably should think about limiting houses built within course boundaries."
Wildlife-friendly courses don't need to be golfer-unfriendly, says wildlife ecologist David Steen of Virginia Tech. A course with more woods and more wetlands will please many species, including, perhaps, that special breed known as the golfer.
"A lot of people play golf because they like to spend time outside," Steen says. "It'd be more rewarding if their time outside was in more of a natural landscape."