Last August, we met with Adam Haas and Nolan Sawtelle at the Louisville Nature Center to learn about the data they are collecting and how that data is used to learn more about turtles. We used radio telemetry equipment to locate turtles using the radio waves being broadcast from devices attached to their shells, and observe Adam and Nolan track data points to learn more about the turtles habits and living conditions.
Both Nolan and Adam are wildlife biology students attending Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Indiana. They are working under Dr. Omar Attum on a program to track and collect data from a number of different box turtles found in the Beargrass Creek State Nature Preserve. The data collected includes GPS location, canopy cover, and species of largest tree within a certain small distance. They were also observing the percentage of ground cover by Creeping Charlie, and Bush Honeysuckle, both invasive shrubs present in many areas around Kentucky.
We headed into the nature preserve and walked down the trail. After a few minutes, Nolan and Adam switched on their radio equipment, and began pointing it in various directions. There was a clicking/beeping sound that grew and waned in amplitude; the closer we were to the signal, the louder the sound, and the further away the softer it was. Once the correct direction was determined, we went off the trail and into the woods in search of the turtle.
After about 10 minutes of walking, occasionally stopping to make sure we were still heading in the correct direction, we understood that the turtle was in close proximity to where we were. After some adjustments and fine tuning were made on the radio equipment, we starting scanning the surrounding area trying to find the hidden turtle. Nolan explained that a lot of the time, this part took the longest. You could be standing directly on top of the turtle and still not be able to see it due to the camouflage on their shells.
After another few minutes, Nolan spotted the turtle under some twigs and brush. He gently picked the turtle up and began to examine it. He explained that he could determine that the sex was female, due to the smaller front claws, short and thin tail, as well as her dark red/brown eyes. This particular turtle was very friendly and did not hide in her shell much; it seemed she was as interested in us as we were her!
Next, we observed Nolan and Adam plotting various data points, using different tools to do so. The species and diameter of the nearest tree was noted, as well as the percentage of the ground covered in Creeping Charlie and Bush Honeysuckle. After they finished their measurements, they repeated the task in another random location determined with a couple coin flips and a tape measure.
Repeat this entire procedure three or four more times and you have the average day of a turtle tracker. Nolan and Adam make their way to the preserve to collect data on the turtles about once a week during the most active months throughout the summer and fall. One of the main goals of their study is to determine the migrational habits of these box turtles, and find out if they stay within the nature preserve, or if they travel to other surrounding areas.
Having data sets such as these over a long period of time can prove to be extremely valuable for future studies of these turtles and their environment. Rosemary Bauman, the head Forest Steward at BCSNP aided the students in their research effort, attaching transmitters to turtles she found during her work, as well as collecting some data of her own. You can learn a lot more about these turtles and the nature preserve on her blog, One Forest Fragment.
Now that the turtles have gone into hibernation for the winter, we eagerly await next year when we can accompany our friends as they resume their turtle adventures!
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