UW-Whitewater Students Follow Blanding’s Turtles for Research and Better Conservation Practices
UW-Whitewater students Nick Rudolph and Lisa Mitchem start their day in a reclaimed swamp in Rock County. They unpack the research material from their car and put on waders. Standing in the shallow water are great blue herons and egrets trying to be incognito among the cattails.
It was an outside lab for Mitchem and Rudolph in 2014. Other undergraduate research students followed them in a multi-year, multi-state project led in part by biology professor Joshua Kapfer. Along with graduate students and professors at Northern Illinois University, they followed Blanding’s Turtle hatchlings to find out how a conservation practice called “quick start” improves hatchling survival. Their findings were published in a June edition of the Journal of Herpetology.
The Shy, Yellow-Spotted Blanding’s Turtle is listed as Special Concern by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and is at risk in the Midwest due to habitat loss. Raccoon populations increase where humans roam, and raccoons love to eat turtle eggs and soft hatchlings.
Kapfer and his students located nests, identified turtles that were about to lay eggs, retrieved eggs, and hatched the eggs in captivity. The tiny newborns were fitted with chip-sized transmitters and released. Their NIU counterparts, working at sites west of Chicago and near Lake Michigan, have deployed cages designed to keep predators out while allowing newborns to leave on their own.
“We wanted to know what happened to the head start and what happened to these turtles after they were released,” Kapfer said, noting that field research on turtles ahead of time may lead to better application of conservation practices, efficient use of time and funding, and more Blanding’s Turtles. .
Their results showed that recently hatched turtles are surviving in greater numbers than Kapfer expected.
“Our initial thought was that hatchlings might be as vulnerable as eggs,” Kapfer said. “Our work confirms that newborns have a fairly high survival rate. That is to say, they are not swallowed up right away.
Kapfer attributes the research gap to the difficulty of studying tiny turtles. Carrying antennas in hand and walking through mud, Kapfer’s students created a data image of the movements and survival of the turtles they had thrown.
“Tracking turtles in wetlands is very, very difficult work,” he said. “It’s physically demanding, mentally demanding. You need to be able to think under duress when you are hot and sweaty, covered in bugs, and walking through a wet area. You have to know how to make decisions. “
The students met landowners whose consent was required when turtles crossed their property lines. All work was carried out on private land with the agreement of the owners.
Kapfer awarded research funding through the UW-Whitewater SURF program, undergraduate research funds, and the President’s Office for making summer research possible. With the help of these funds, students can start their own future careers with relevant summer jobs, he said.
“One of my big goals is not just to teach them, but to teach them how to be scientists,” he said. “This is really true in all areas of the biology department. We have been very good at conducting real research that ultimately results in student presentations at professional meetings or co-authors of peer-reviewed publications.
The alumni who have followed the Blanding’s Turtles in the Marsh excel as graduate teachers, consultants and researchers. In May, Mitchem received a doctorate from the University of Virginia. She said undergraduate research had helped her understand that a desire to study biology could turn into a career as a scientist.
“When I entered undergraduate studies, I knew I wanted to study biology,” Mitchem said. “But I never imagined that a person could make a living tracking turtles and asking interesting questions about wildlife. My decision to go to college was certainly influenced by my research experiences as an undergraduate student.
After graduating from college, Karl Rutzen (’16) was hired to teach at West Allis Central High School near Milwaukee. On several occasions, Rutzen taught biology, physical sciences and chemistry.
“Recently, we have started to move towards more project-based learning,” said Rutzen. “The (Blanding’s Turtle) project has helped me realize that we need to know more about all the species around us, so I try to encourage all the students I work with to be curious and ask why. “
Andrew Ibach and Joseph Mozuch, who are also former undergraduate researchers on the project, are working on graduate degrees at the University of Kentucky and UW-Madison, respectively. Rudolph has worked at DNR and in consulting, Kapfer said.
“At the end of the day,” Kapfer said using a favorite phrase, “We want to prepare students for the next level.”