Turtles are individuals too!   3 comments

When I was a boy, I thought a deer was a deer, a duck was a duck, and a bug was a bug. I thought all snakes were the same, each coyote was a clone, and every robin was identical. Man, was I wrong!

One of the biggest blessings of being a biologist for the past decade is the privilege of getting to know intimately each individual within the same population of a single species. I have had the fortune of experiencing this several times, with several taxa (groups of organisms). My understanding of this phenomenon emerged during my graduate studies in conservation biology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. I was tasked with studying an endangered species, the Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) in a rural area outside of Kejimkujik National Park.

It was my job to find out how many individuals of this species inhabited the rural working landscape surrounding the protected area, what the threats were to the population (if there was a population at all), and engage the community to assist in the recovery of the species.

The first individual Blanding’s turtle I captured pooped in my lap. It was a 13 year old juvenile, and I called him “Turd” – the second one was also a juvenile, which I had trouble catching up to. I called her “Scoot” – and the third was a male, who miraculously disappeared from my canoe when I wasn’t watching – I called him “Houdini”.

That first year I worked with the turtles I captured 26 individuals, including six juveniles, 10 males and 10 females. Because I attached small radio-transmitters to their shells I could follow them around on a daily basis to determine their habitat use and movement patterns – I was able to get to know them all quite well. I saw some individuals over 100 times that spring, summer, and fall, and what struck me was the consistency of their “personalities”, or more scientifically, “behaviour patterns.”

“Scoot” was always hard to catch, because she was so fast. “Houdini” was always disappearing and showing up in new areas. “Shy” was … well, always shy – I never saw her emerge from her shell, she was always tucked in tight.

Before Jane Goodall emerged onto the scene of wildlife biology, it was a huge taboo to name individuals of a study species. Anthropomorphism, as it is called, was a sin. Scientists are objective! Animals are not people! But … people are animals. And her work with chimpanzees in the Gombe reserve revealed to the world that, just like you and I, individual animals are UNIQUE. The turtles of Pleasant River, Nova Scotia unveiled this revelation for me, and for that I am eternally grateful to them.

More recently I have been conducting research for the Toronto Zoo in southern Ontario on, you guessed it, Blanding’s turtles. My career has come full circle! I captured 63 individuals in a wetland complex north of Lake Erie, and photographed the belly shell (plastron) of every individual. Like the turtles of Nova Scotia, each individual impressed upon me their uniqueness – in their behaviours, habitat selection, distances travelled, and overall temperament, among other things. I named these turtles too, mostly after landowners in the surrounding community. I gave every landowner surrounding the swamp a picture of “their turtle” and described to them where it lived, and what it was like. I figured they would be much more likely to become stewards of the wetland and help protect the turtles if they knew their namesake was out there in the swamp somewhere. I think it worked.

One of the coolest things about Blanding’s turtles (besides the permanent smile on their face, bright yellow chin, and beautifully speckled shell) is the pattern on their plastron – every turtle’s is unique, just like our fingerprints. The poster on which I assembled all my photos from the last two years is meant to symbolize that uniqueness, not only in shape and pattern, but also in behaviour and personality.

Biodiversity is phenomenal, and protecting dwindling species like the Blanding’s turtle can help preserve what is so amazing and special about life on earth – its variety. If you want to purchase one of these posters and support the program, contact the Ontario Turtle Tally (http://www.torontozoo.com/adoptapond/turtletally.asp).

— Brennan Caverhill


Posted March 31, 2012 by thinkingturtles in Uncategorized

3 responses to “Turtles are individuals too!

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  1. Wow, Brennan! Who would have thought that MANY turtle plastrons would make a pretty poster?! Well done, my friend! 😀

    I am studying the nesting activity of the river terrapins (Batagur affinis) and during their nesting season in Feb/March 2012, I had the opportunity to microchip, measure and weigh more than 50 females! 😀

  2. My husband Harold and I fell under Brennan’s spell in Nova Scotia and as a result have our family of turtles that we care for. Stewardship brings responsibility and I hope the families in Ontario adopt their turtles and preserve their home.

  3. Very Cool idea! Blanding’s and Box turtles were my favorites as a kid and still are today. I live on the other side of Lake Erie in NW Ohio and have catalogued the box turtles in my own in my neighborhood. Great to see them year in and year out out in the yard and in the woods and have a history with them. You have inspired me to get on photoshop and try to make a similar poster!

    Patrick Anderson

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