Keeping up with turtles: Morenci graduate Melissa Gallatin studies turtles for a research project

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By DAVID GREEN

Melissa Gallatin shoves off from shore in a bright yellow kayak as her research partner, Craig Myers, takes a look across Crooked Lake, northwest of Onsted.turtle_sitting

They’re actually earning college credit for this.

“It’s nice to say our classroom is however many acres there are here,” he said, “and our homework is to go kayaking.”

It’s not like that every day, but for two to three hours three times a week, this is where they’re studying. Since early September, the Adrian College seniors have made the trip to visit three ponds in search of turtles.

Species, sex, size, weight, distinguishing marks, location—there’s a variety of data to be collected. It’s all part of their senior research project for environmental science majors.

A session last week starts off with the usual routine: Gallatin, a 1999 Morenci High School graduate, calls out the maximum and minimum temperatures since their last visit.turtle_map

“On a day after it’s been sunny we find a lot more,” Gallatin says.

That’s because the majority of the 18 traps they’re using are basking platforms. Turtles love to lie in the sun and the wire traps—supported by foam “swimming noodles”—provide a great location.

They set off in a paddle boat across Butter Ladle Pond to check the first trap and inside is a female painted turtle. Gallatin points to the lines on the top of the shell.

“I’d say she’s at least three years old, maybe four,” she guesses. “It’s sort of like growth rings in a tree.”

That’s not an accurate aging technique, but it gives an approximation.

This specimen has no distinguishing marks, other than the two notches cut into the shell. Those were added the first time it was caught. The students carry a file to make small cuts at the edge of the shell. Now it has a number.turtle.closeup

Flip a turtle onto its back and look at the scutes—the small sections of the shell that fit together like a well-constructed jigsaw puzzle. Each scute represents a number as shown in a master plan of a turtle shell. A notch here and another over there represents turtle no. 79. Another cut added in the right place would make it turtle no. 179.

Some shells will show teeth marks from a past skirmish. One turtle has a scar across the face and the students know it well because he’s frequent visitor.

“We were catching him at least once a week for a month,” Gallatin says.

As they head off to the second trap, she explains that the painted turtle is by far the most common species found in these ponds. There’s been one Blanding’s turtle and a few musk turtles.

“We’ve been told there are spiny soft shell turtles here but we’ve never seen any,” Gallatin said.turtle_kayak

The biggest painted turtle found weighed in at about a pound. The Blanding’s was about three pounds. All pale in comparison to a snapping turtle. At another pond, Myers’s kayak was once bumped by a giant snapper. His surprised reaction was easily heard on shore.

The second and third traps were empty—activity is decreasing fast as cold weather sets in—and there’s a strong fishy odor as Myers lifts the fourth trap out of the water. There are two reasons for that.

First, there’s a sardine can, just slightly opened, at the bottom of each trap for bait. Second, there’s thick muck at the bottom of the pond. Myers once stepped off the paddle boat to free it from the muck and promptly sank almost to his neck.turtle_trap

The students are soon hiking through the woods to Miller Pond where Myers enters a kayak to check traps. Gallatin talks about the project while she awaits her partner’s return.

“We’re looking at population growth, movement and the overall health of the population.”

They’re checking growth and weight changes of the specimens that are re-caught. They’re looking for turtles that have migrated from one pond to another. They’ll try to determine if there’s any correlation between weather conditions and growth.

“We’ll wrap up our pond visits soon and turn to putting data into the computer for analysis,” Gallatin said. “Hopefully next semester someone will take it over. Maybe someone will take a different spin off it and look at other factors.”turtle.blanding

Myers returns without a single find, so they head off to the third site, Crooked Pond, where Gallatin will take a turn in the kayak. It’s the biggest body of water of the three, requiring the most paddling and the most wind and waves.

There’s not much of a breeze today and she makes good time.

While she’s gone, Myers talks about the time their professor, Dr. Craig Weatherby, almost jumped overboard in pursuit of a water snake. Another day Myers saw a frog being eaten by a water snake. Occasionally they’ll find a catfish or bluegill in a turtle trap. A heron took off from the shallow water when the students first arrived. There’s quite a parade of wildlife.

“A lot of the experience isn’t what we see in the traps,” Myers said. “It’s the fish and the deer and the cranes and the hawks….”turtle_scale

The visit this day produced only a single specimen. So far, there’s never been a day without at least one turtle, but that series will soon come to an end.

“We figure we’ll be all done by Nov. 1,” Gallatin said. “The temperatures will become consistently cold enough that they’ll all be hibernating.”

“And we’ll be consistently cold enough that we’ll want to stop,” adds Chris, as the sun lowers in the sky.

When that time comes, it’s farewell to the open air classroom and back indoors to work at a desk.

    – Oct. 30, 2002 

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