Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Turtle Life Part 2: Early June

Now it is early June.  Your nest (luckily) was not sniffed out by a hungry predator, and you remain safely buried in the soil.  At this point, you chances of being found by a predator or very low, they mostly find only fresh nests.  However, about 70% of the nests around you were discovered and destroyed.  For the coming months, the most important thing for you is how wet and how warm your little spot in the soil is.  Mom chose a very sunny site to dig your nest.  There is very little shade on the south or west side of the nest, so your nest is very exposed in the hot afternoon sun.  Compared to most of the places around, your nest is relatively very warm.  However, more important than how shady your nest is, is just the weather itself.  You develop more quickly when its warm, but development slows down when its cool.  If your nest is very warm, you may hatch in early August, but if its a cool summer, you might not hatch until September. 

Your mom left you all the yolk you need to grow, but she didn't give you all the water you may need.  Unlike a bird egg, that has a shell that water cannot permeate, your leathery soft egg shell can absorb (or lose) water. If your nest is very moist, your egg will swell up, and may even allow help you be bigger when you hatch.  However if it floods, you won't be able to survive.  And if it is very dry, it may make growth difficult or even kill you.  So hopefully your mom's nest is about the right temperature and about the right moisture for proper development. 

As you have heard, nest temperature will determine whether you will be a boy or a girl. But the critical time for sex determination (known as the thermosensitive period) will not begin quite yet.  Once you are about one third of the way through your development, tempertature will begin to be important, but that is still a few weeks away.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Turtle Life: Part 1 The first year of life for a turtle

Use your imagination for a moment, and put yourself in the shoes (or shell!) of a painted turtle during the first year of life.

Mom is digging you a nest!
The first few weeks of May:  You are a fertilized egg of a turtle, only a few cells big.  You are inside your mother, along with 10 other eggs who will be your brothers or sisters.  Each day, your mother is swimming around the slough, trying to eat as many aquatic insects, carrion, and aquatic vegetation as possible.  She needs this food so that she can supply you with a large amount of nutritious yolk.  This yolk is very important for you, because you will not eat a real meal for about 1 year!  Your mother is also trying to bask in the sunlight as much as possible so she has the energy to dig you a nest, somewhere on land.

May 24:  Today is an important day for you and your siblings. It is sunny, and warm, and mom spends all morning basking.  Around 5pm, she crawls out of the water.  She could crawl out only a few meters, but she doesn’t.  Mom walks out of the water and starts looking for just the right place to nest.  Which place is right?  Well, this is a challenging question!  Raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes would love to dig up her nest, and might even try to eat mom if they get the chance- so hopefully she can find a place where you and she can both avoid the predators. 
You and your siblings, buried with care in the nest!
She also needs to be concerned with your development.  She can’t sit on the next like a bird can or protect you from predators, so the only thing she can do is choose a good place.   If its too hot or cold, you won’t ever make it, but she can’t control the weather either.  So she has to choose a nest that will hopefully be the right temperature, but you may be at the mercy of the weather.  Also, if your nest is very warm, you and your siblings will all become sisters.  If your nest is cool, you and your siblings will all become brothers.  Perhaps your nest is in the middle, and you will have some brothers and some sisters!    

The covered up nest- well camouflaged from Raccoons.
Mom chooses a sunny place about 50 meters from the river.  She begins to dig. Your mother has extremely sharp claws and powerful hind legs.  She also has drank a lot of water, which she now releases on the nest as she digs, to help moisten the rock hard soil.  She carefully carves out a cavity about the size of a racquetball, with a narrow opening at the top.  Then, out you come!  You are no longer in your mom, but in the ground.  Your eggs is about the size of a grape, but mostly yolk.  You are still just a few cells large. She carefully packs you in, and covers you up, and crawls back to the water.  Since you are in an egg, and haven’t even developed eyes yet, it is possible you will never ever see your mother, because she is gone and isn’t coming back!  But she has done what she can to give you what you need to survive.  But this is just the beginning of a long year ahead of you!    Find out what happens next?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Turtle Nesting 101

Turtles are oviparous which means that they lay eggs.  Many other animals lay eggs as well, like birds, insects, amphibians, fish and other reptiles.  Whether or not turtles live in the water most of the time, they will lay their eggs on land.  The painted turtles that we study crawl out of the water, dig a shallow nest, lay their eggs, cover up the nest, and leave.  Forever!  That’s right.  After a turtle lays her nest  she never comes back.  So you may think a turtle is a pretty lousy mom.  But that is not so!

Turtle eggs are filled with nutritious yolk that help the baby developing inside grow.  These eggs are very sensitive to their environment- particularly how warm and wet the environment is.  So moms must lay eggs at just the right time, and in just the right place so that the nest is suitable for the developing eggs. 
At Turtle Camp, we monitor where and when turtles nest, and we measure how many eggs are in the nest, and how big each egg is. Over the past 24 years, the earliest date we have recorded a turtle nest was May 21. This year, there have already been 52 nests laid prior to May 21! Depending on where you live, you may have experienced a very warm winter and early spring.  Here at Turtle Camp it was a very warm winter and early spring. This warm winter has already influenced how the turtles are behaving!  Stay tuned to see how nesting continues through the coming weeks.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Turtle Camp 2012! The 25th Year!

What is Turtle Camp?

25 years ago, a PhD student from the University of Chicago was looking for a place to find Painted Turtle eggs for a science experiment.  Somebody suggested heading to a Sand Prairie along the Mississippi River, near Thomson, IL.  As he was camping nearby on a nearby island, he noticed turtles seemed to love nesting right in there in the campsite!  That student was Fred Janzen.  Fred is now a Professor at Iowa State University and we now know that campsite as Turtle Camp.  And every year since that summer, Fred and his students have traveled to the Turtle Camp to research the turtles.

For 6 weeks each May and June, a team of researchers is stationed at Turtle Camp, trying to learn as much about the ecology and evolution of these animals as possible.  The Turtle Camp Research Team has very diverse duties.  On one of the nesting beaches, we walk through every single hour of daylight looking for nesting turtles, and take all sorts of information about each nest.  We also trap turtle swimming around in the river, and learn about those turtles as well.  We visit the Sand Prairie, which is a great habitat for turtle nesting, and for many uncommon reptiles to live (like the Hognose Snake and Ornate Box Turtle).  On top of all this, students have their own research projects going on.  Indeed, Turtle Camp is a busy place for the Turtle researchers. 

Who is the Turtle Camp research team?

Each year the research team is a bit different, and throughout the season different people come and go.  Right now, I am coordinating the research project. I am a PhD student at Iowa State, and  I am working with 3 Iowa State biology students, Jessica, Brooke, and Aubrey. Jessica is from Des Moines, and has been to Turtle Camp for 6 years (longer than I have).  She started coming as a high school student.  Brooke is in her second year at Turtle Camp, and Aubrey in her first. As Turtle Camp proceeds more and different people will be coming through.  Of course, Fred is still the primary Turtle Camp researcher, and is the reason there has been successful research continuing here for so long. 

What to expect by following along?
Over the coming weeks, you will learn that turtles are very fascinating and interesting creatures.  And you will also learn what its like to be a science researcher living in the field, studying animals in their natural habitats.  It will be a fun adventure for us, and I hope you will have a fun following along. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Turtle Camp Begins!

On Monday we arrived at our Turtle Research site in Thomson, IL.  We will spend the next 6 weeks here doing science research, working mostly with Painted Turtles.  On Day 1 we set up our campsite and gear for the 6 week season, and purchased a lot of supplies and groceries.  Yesterday we set up a lot of turtle traps in the Mississippi River backwaters to try and capture as many turtles as possible.  And we also had our very first turtle nest of the season....  Our internet coverage is rather poor out here, but I will be sending you some videos and more updates soon.

To whet your appetite, check out this longer turtle trapping video from last years Turtle Camp.