Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Keji 2008: for the shell of it

Turtle Trivia: For those of you who don’t know what the Blanding’s turtle looks like, they have a black shell, with yellow speckles, a yellow throat and underbelly. They are a bit larger than painted turtles and do occur in certain regions of Ontario in addition to this small region in Nova Scotia. They are classified as endangered in Nova Scotia, but threatened nation-wide. I find it neat that Blanding’s turtles (and all other turtle) females have flat bellies, whereas the males have a convex belly – why is this… well, turtles have to procreate too, don’t they! Having a shell can make things awkward, so the shape of the underbelly aids in mating. There are other ways to tell males and females apart, but in addition to the shape of their bellies, the size of the tail and location of their cloaca (universal bum-reproductive hole) are the best indicators (they can breathe through that hole too). Blanding’s turtles don’t reach maturity until they are around 21 years old, and can live to be over 80. Those who actually survive that long don’t stop reproducing until death -there are no golden years for the turtle…
Hey, I think the park interpreter in me is taking over… I may be shoving too many facts your way in this email! However, it’s been enlightening getting into the mindset of an interpreter… those of us in science don’t realize how little the general public actually knows about scientific genre. I particularly realized this after a group of high school biology students came to visit for the day. Such as many people don’t know what a species at risk is, yet it’s such common knowledge for many of us who have taken biology (by the way, it means that the survival of a group of living things is at stake). We can prattle on about permeability of oxygen through derma in an anuran, when all people really want to know is that it simply means that frogs breathe through their skin. It’s taken some work to take a few steps back in order to explain things in a simpler way, and make it interesting too!
One thing that this province has, that I’ve never experienced elsewhere is… ticks!! You wouldn’t believe how many ticks I have gotten on my body since I’ve been here! The girls I live/work with call me a tick magnet, since they can’t believe how many get on me. Is there Lyme disease here? Yes! So, I check myself thoroughly after each day out in the field… I even found one that was a little too close for my liking to a rather sensitive region of my body!
I spent a weekend with a friend, Krisi and her husband, Marcus, both whom I hadn’t seen in years. They have a beautiful farm near Tatamagouche (about a 3 hr drive from where I am), which overlooks the Northhumberland Strait (right across from Prince Edward Island), with ten horses, four cats and four dogs. It was so great to see them both again, and with even hopped on one of her young horses – a gray, named Revenge. I’m sure I’ll be visiting again as the summer goes on!
Those of us involved with the turtle research got some entertainment recently, when we fed the blanding’s turtles in the Visitor’s Centre some live minnows. Their necks are surprisingly long, and for at least ten minutes, we all stood there watching the little turtles swim with all their might, with their necks stretched out as far as they could go, after the minnows: back and forth in the tank, crashing into the sides of it, and rocks within. After finally catching a minnow, it was carnage… shredded fish bits as the turtles use their front claws to tear at the food in their mouths (turtles don’t have teeth), but interesting to watch… well, at least I think it’s pretty cool! We’ve started to introduce live food to the turtles, to prepare them for their release into the wild later on this summer.
One of the researchers found an unmarked Blanding’s turtle crossing the road, which was pretty exciting… unmarked? It means that the turtle didn’t have notches engraved into certain scutes (like scales, there are 12 on either side) of her carapace (upper shell). I was able to take her into the local research facility, called the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute (MTRI), and went through the works of how we monitor and keep track the Blanding’s turtles. Notches were put in with a type of nail file, so that she can be identified if caught again in the future. Her plastron (belly shell) was scanned by a flatbed scanner for pictorial reference. Turtles have rings of growth, like a tree and each is unique to the individual like a fingerprint to us. Various measurements of length, height and weight, as well as blood sampling for genetic analyses are part of the work-up. She was even outfitted with a radio transmitter, glued onto her shell by epoxy, so that researchers can track her movements in the future. I’ll be doing a fair bit of catching and data collecting on the Blanding’s turtles in the park, but who’s to say how many have yet to be found for the first time!
Well… back to ‘shellraising’ around here! (by the way, Shellraisers is the name of the interpretive paddle I’m giving this summer... it is focused on the turtles of Nova Scotia)