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Turtle Hide and Seek
They say it takes a village to raise a child; when it comes to turtles, it takes a classroom. The September sky is blue, and the air is crisp. It’s a ...
October 1, 2018

They say it takes a village to raise a child; when it comes to turtles, it takes a classroom.

The September sky is blue, and the air is crisp. It’s a good day for a walk in the swamp. A team of young conservationists gather in a lookout tower above Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, MA. 3,800 acres of conservation land spreads below, including 12 miles of wetlands. The refuge, like much of the region, is in a state of extreme drought and the wetlands are conspicuously dry, with large areas of pocked mud framing slight streams and marshland.

Somewhere down below, amongst the mud and the marshes are turtles. Blanding’s turtles to be exact. Tufts alumnus, Dr. Bryan Windmiller, Director of Conservation at Zoo New England (ZNE) has been working to restore populations of this threatened species since 2003. Today, students from the MS in Conservation Medicine (MCM) program will join ZNE to practice their tracking skills in a giant game of turtle hide-and-seek.

The premise is simple. Each turtle in Dr. Windmiller’s study has been radio-tagged. The tag sends off a radio signal that can be picked up by a large, handheld antenna, which gives off a beep when pointed in the direction of the turtle; the louder the beep, the closer the turtle. The students’ objective is to locate the turtle, utilizing the radio tracker, and a sturdy pair of waders.

Into the mud

The class breaks into teams and heads for the swamp. Dr. Windmiller’s group heads east on a trail popular with cyclists and walkers. The students take turns oscillating with the antenna, listening for the hint of a beep. After fifteen minutes, the team takes a left turn, off the beaten path.

Dr. Windmiller goes first into the marsh, striding through the eight-foot-tall grass. The sense of adventure is high as mud-speckled students demonstrate where to step (and where not to). With every turn, there’s a new lesson. From the ecology of drought to the migration patterns of local waterfowl. As the group nears the shallow stream winding through the middle of the flat, life reveals itself. Students eagerly point out egret, heron, and wood ducks. Frogs leap from the shore and splash into the water. The beep grows louder.

The Holy Grail

With the sun high in the sky and the terrain becoming slightly more challenging, the group collects on the edge of the widest point of the stream and quiets as one student operates the antenna. The beeping becomes stronger and more frequent. In unison, the students excitedly gaze in the direction of the beeping—directly across the water.

Just before lunch, the team tracks down the turtle: A 60-year-old female who’s been monitored for the past 30 years. She’s enjoying the last days of warmth before she’ll start her annual trek to the bottom of her favorite pond for a long winter nap.

She is visually checked for health, weighed, and the radio is replaced with one with fresh batteries that will last the whole winter and into the spring nesting season. The radios are most important to be active in the spring when the adults leave the wetlands to lay their eggs. Zoo New England tracks the females to make sure they can find the nests, and place screens around them to prevent predation over the summer while the eggs develop.

After lunch, the team will be acquainting themselves with some of the newest members of the local population: a freshly hatched clutch of Blanding’s turtles, headed for a local classroom for a “headstart.”

Over the nine months, hatchlings spend in the “headstart” classroom, they achieve five times the growth of their wild counterparts. Over the 12 months, students spend in the MCM program, they achieve an immeasurable amount of growth. The lessons learned in the field today will be applied to their professional pursuits for years to come. The students, educators, and field workers who nurture them throughout the program will form the networks that will help them survive and thrive throughout their career. More than a headstart, the MCM program is a career start.

A word on turtles

Blanding’s turtles are a medium-sized turtle, with a shell between six to nine inches long. A yellow chin and throat complement their dark, yellow speckled shell. Though small and slow, these turtles love to travel. They spend the winter sleeping on the bottom of ponds, then they wake up and spend the spring, summer, and fall doing a tour of local wetlands and woodlands. Once they reach sexual maturity at 14-20 years, they mate in the fall, and then in the spring head to drier ground to lay their clutch of eggs.

While vulnerable to several predators, the number one threat to Blanding’s turtles are cars and human development of wetland and upland habitat needed for laying eggs. In their pursuit of higher, drier nesting ground, Blanding’s turtles frequently enter residential neighborhoods, often losing their lives while merely crossing the road. The ones who make it may choose a nice warm and sunny area (so eggs can develop from the heat of the sun) in someone’s backyard to lay their eggs, thus exposing their offspring to the dangers of backyard predators, such as domestic dogs and raccoons.

It’s a dangerous world for turtles, but luckily there is help. ZNE partners with the community to protect and support the Blanding’s turtle population through a “headstart” program. Community volunteers identify and protect turtle nests until the eggs hatch. Once hatched, the baby turtles are placed under the safe, nurturing care of a primary school classroom. For nine months, the students care for the hatchlings, allowing them to grow stronger and faster than in the wild. After nine months, the turtles are released into their natural habitat near where the eggs were collected.

ZNE continually monitors the turtle population and has demonstrated that the “headstart” juveniles survive and thrive at high rates, post-release.

The Long Game

Conservation is about the long game: preservation and sustainability. To be successful, conservationists must have the vision to impact the world around them over the long-term using skills, knowledge and collaboration to make positive changes for wildlife and ecosystems.  The MCM program provides its passionate students with a launch pad complete with an interdisciplinary education in these areas through experiential, classroom, and laboratory work.

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