Turtle Research

Since I am pursuing a bachelor of science degree, I will be writing a senior thesis. Of course, this means that I first need to do some research, so I have something about which to write. It looks like that something will be turtles, more specifically the nesting preferences and nest site fidelity of western pond turtles. I spent a a good part of last summer doing field research at a site up in Lake County, and this semester I am working in the lab with the data we collected, but for my own project, and also for a continuing project on temperature-dependent sex detemination in turtles.

This all came about last semester when i was speaking with my advisor about possibilities for senior thesis topics. Dr. Derek Girman, my advisor, suggested that i speak with Dr. Nick Geist, as he does the kind of vertebrate stuff that interests me (he is also a paleontologist, which is also stuff that I love). As it happened, while Dr. Girman and i were talking about this, Dr. Geist walked by and saw us talking – he must have had a psychic moment because he veered over to join us, and a couple of minutes later he’d agreed to help me come up with a project in his lab. A couple of weeks later, he invited me to be part of one of his big research projects and join the Turtle Team. Dr. Geist is one of my favorite professors, and I was thrilled to be accepted into his lab as an undergrad!

After some discussion, we decided that I would work on nest site fidelity – whether or not females return to the same location year after year to nest. I’m also interested in whether or not they return to their natal sites – the place where they themselves were born – but that might be outside then scope of what in will be able to research given the time I have to work on this project.

So, over the summer, I spent a lot of time up in Lake County at our research site, helping one of the grad students with her project, and also beginning to collect data of my own. The main project involved tracking females who had come out of the water to nest. Sometimes, we just followed them and monitored them while they were nesting so we could get a count of their eggs afterward. (Later, the eggs were removed to be incubated in our lab to be head-started by one of the local zoos and released about a year from now). Sometimes, we tracked them using radio telemetry equipment – we glued transmitters to their backs, and then tracked them to their nests that way. Mostly, the work involved tromping around a really beautiful location up in Lake County, grabbing up turtles (who almost always peed on us when we picked them up), and keeping track of the nests they laid. I also collected soil samples from all nest sites, and got GPS data for nest locations. Since most of the work took place in the early evening (we were usually in the field from about four in the afternoon until nine or ten at night), so we camped overnight instead of making the long drive home. Super fun!

We went up there a couple of days a week during June, until the end of the nesting season. Later in the summer, we went back up to help collect eggs, and also to release the baby turtles who had hatched last yes, and been raised in zoos. That was also lot of fun, except my boots kept getting stuck in the mud.

Now that the semester has started, there isn’t any field work until next year, so I’m working with data – plotting my location coordinates on a map and eventually I’ll get down to analyzing my soil samples. Dr. Geist wants me to put together a poster and present it next year at a conference, so I’ll be working on that, too, eventually. OH YEAH TURTLES!

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