Biology majors conduct turtle research at Lake Placida

Kelci Sannapieco May 1, 2013 0

On April 16, Dr. David Bowne, assistant professor of biology, aided Elizabethtown College biology students in his Principles of Evolution, Ecology and Diversity of Life lab where students were granted the opportunity of conducting turtle research at Lake Placida and “Weird Pond.”  This real-world learning experience allowed students to work hands-on with a local wildlife population while answering practical questions.

The turtle lab activity is also part of a larger, multi-institution research project called TurtlePop, which is led by Bowne through the Ecological Research as Education Network (EREN).  The TurtlePop project allows for students from 30 institutions across the United States to share similar experiences and data about the world around them.

In preparation for the lab, student volunteers and Browne set five hoop traps in Lake Placida and six hoop traps in “Weird Pond,” which is adjacent to the Etown baseball stadium.  Students from each of the four biology labs then checked the traps for turtles by wearing waders to walk into the pond and retrieve the traps.  If the trap contained turtles, the students brought the trap to land and measured each turtle which helped determine its sex.  The unique “name” of each turtle was recorded by observing notches on the side of the top shell.  All of the turtles caught this year were previously caught and marked by Bowne.  After collecting all of the data, the turtles were released back into their natural habitat.

“The purpose of the lab was to demonstrate to students a simple technique to estimate the size of a wildlife population,” Bowne said. He explained how most wildlife are difficult to count because they hide from predators.  “The mark-recapture technique allows us to estimate population size,” Bowne said.  “Knowing population size is an essential aspect of understanding anything about a species and how to manage it.”

The students also gathered this information to contribute to the TurtlePop project.  “In TurtlePop, we are testing the hypothesis that as urbanization increases, the turtle population characteristics will change,” Bowne said.  “Specifically, we expect turtle populations to become more male dominated because females may die more as a consequence of car collisions or predation in more developed areas.”  Populations are also expected to be adult-dominated because terrestrial nesting habitats may be damaged.

“As a learning goal, we want students to understand how ecological processes around a habitat can influence what happens within a habitat,” Bowne said.  To test these hypotheses, one must study numerous turtle habitats in a variety of settings.  The collaborative nature of TurtlePop allows these researchers to conduct a study that would be impossible for any one researcher to gather and record all necessary information by him or herself.

The TurtlePop project is exciting for Bowne because it allows students and faculty to participate in something that is new for them.  It gives faculty the chance to share their knowledge with their students.  Bowne believes the students enjoy the project and find it worthwhile.  “Because of TurtlePop, we have roughly 30 faculty and nearly 900 students out studying turtles and experiencing hands-on wildlife research that would not otherwise have had that opportunity,” Bowne said.  The goal of this data collected by the students is to make a meaningful contribution to the advancement of science.  As TurtlePop progresses, Etown students will have the ability to interact with professors and students from other institutions involved in the project to learn about ecology across large areas.

First year Elizabeth McManus, a double major in biotechnology and psychology, helped set the turtle traps for the lab.  “This has to be one of my favorite biology labs, because we were helping collect data for a large scale cooperative study,” McManus said.  “I also just really love working with animals, so handling the turtles was definitely a plus for me.”  The traps have shown McManus how one must think critically about every aspect of research, and the lab has helped her realize the importance of academic collaboration.  “Through enlisting professors at other colleges, the research from this project will be more extensive and useful,” McManus said.

First year biotechnology major Steph Staniforth shared how the lab helped her academically by emulating the process that an actual science research field would use.  “My favorite part of the lab was being able to go into these interesting ecosystems and study turtles, which are fascinating organisms,” Staniforth said.

Bowne created TurtlePop as a pilot project for EREN.  “I have studied freshwater turtles since 1998 and so I have a lot of experience with them,” Bowne said.  He is a founding member of EREN and proposed the study of turtles, which many of his colleagues supported to make this project a reality.  Bowne has been involved with EREN since 2008 and created the TurtlePop project in 2011.

Professor of Biology Dr. Thomas Murray is also participating in an EREN project. He worked on a stream temperature project and is a co-principal investigator on a grant submission to the National Science Foundation to further that research.  “It’s exciting to have colleagues and our students at Etown benefit from EREN aside from my personal involvement,” Bowne said.  “For them to participate in TurtlePop, they have to learn new things, which is exciting for them and meaningful to me.”

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