Thursday, June 14, 2012

Turtle Camp Research and Education in Ecology (TREE) Program starts!

For two weeks each year, 8 high school students join the graduate and undergraduate students doing research at turtle camp.  For these two weeks, these students are immersed in science research.  They participate in the ongoing projects associated with the Janzen lab, and have an opportunity to develop their own research projects.  Students generate their own questions, are guided through the process of developing a experiment or study that can answer their question, and have an opportunity to present their research to the public.  The Turtle Camp Research and Education in Ecology (TREE) Program is a rare opportunity for students of this age to engage in real science.  This year’s TREE program started on Monday, and we will get to know these students and their projects over the next two weeks.

25th Year Anniversary

For 25 years, Fred Janzen and his collaborators and students have intensely studied a population of painted turtles on the Mississippi River.  Those who have participated in Turtle Camp are now across the country doing great things.  On June 1st, we had our 25th year anniversary, drawing former students from across the country to spend a weekend at Turtle Camp.  This group of hard-working and dedicated scientists have produced new knowledge about one of the most fascinating creatures on the planet.  Fred deserves a big Thank You from us all for giving us the opportunity to engage in such interesting research.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Turtle Life Part 5: Spring Emergence

A baby turtle on its journey to water.
Black is all you ever have seen. You and your sisters are packed into your subterranean nest, and you have just endured a cold winter.  But days are getting longer, and sunlight more intense, and the soil begins to thaw and then warm.  On a hot rainy day in March, you and your sisters begin to claw your way through the moistened soil.  You have several centimeters to dig through, and you reach the surface.  Your first glimpse of light!   However, you are an aquatic turtle, yet mom put your nest far into the land.  For each meter she crawled out of the water, you have to crawl back.  With her size, she can walk that far in ten minutes, but it will take you days.  You are about the size of a quarter.  The lawn grass towers above your head.  Divots in the ground are like canyons, and slight rises are like mountains.  You cannot see the water directly, but you can sense it, and start walking towards the water.  Your dark colored carapace helps camouflage you, but there are predators everywhere.  Little blackbirds, blue jays, herons, crows, raccoons, bullfrogs, and anything else that can fit you into their mouth might eat you.  And if you don’t make it in time, you could dry out and die.  In early mornings and late evenings you march towards water, but its too hot in the middle of the day and too cool in the night.  Inch by inch, you get closer to your goal until you finally reach the swamp.  Your first swim in the water feels natural, as this is your real home.  While you still need to avoid fish, frogs, wading birds, and many other predators, you have already beaten many of the challenges you face.  If you are able to survive, you will come back to the nesting beach where you were laid, but 5 years later, to lay your first clutch of eggs.  Your first year of  life is now complete.

Turtle Life Part 4: Winter Months

You are a COLD baby turtle!
You and your sisters have hatched in your nest, and now position yourselves with your tail down and your head up.  Here, you wait.  You still have some yolk attached to your belly on the inside of your shell.  This yolk is all your nourishment until spring.   As proceeds, leaves turn colors, then drop off the trees above your nests.  Days grow shorter, nights grow longer, and winter approaches.  The temperature inside your dark nest begin to fall, your heart rate and metabolism really slow down.  Snow that falls above the nest acts as an insulating barrier to the cold.  Still, your shallow nest, and subsequently your own body temperature, drops below freezing.  Your body is specially adapted to withstand subzero temperatures.  Your body can “supercool” which means it can stay unfrozen in temperatures below freezing.  Even if it gets colder, parts of your body can freeze- mostly the liquid outside of your cells.  You are one of the few vertebrate animals on earth that can survive with your body temperature so cold.  However, the winter is still a dangerous time.  If it drops too cold, you may not be able to make it.  However, all you can do now is hope mom’s nest was in a place that is well enough insulated from the cold, that you won’t freeze to death.  You  can’t wait for the spring thaw and your first glimpse of daylight.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Turtle Life Part 3: Summer Months

A developing turtle embryo!

Its now early July and you have been developing well. Your sexual structures have not yet developed and whether you will grow boy parts or girl parts is now being determined.  This years temperatures are about average, and your nest is in a sunny spot.  In particular, during the afternoon, there is no shade covering your nest.  These warm temperatures increase the developmental rate, meaning cells are dividing faster and your body is growing quickly.  When you are at a cooler temperature you develop more slowly.  Since you are at a warm temperature certain genes are telling your body to produce hormones that direct your developing tissue to become ovaries as opposed to testes.  This means you are a girl! 

Development proceeds rapidly as this summer is very warm. In early August, you are almost completely developed and it’s about time to hatch.  You have a special scale on the end of your nose called an egg tooth.  You slit the leathery shell and take your first breath of air.  Over the next day or two you will completely crawl out of your shell.  All of your siblings are doing the same thing right now.  Within a day, there will no longer be a nest filled with eggs but now a nest filled with you and your baby turtle siblings.   You might think that the next step is to crawl out of the nest, but in fact, your chances of survival are much better if you sit tight, and endure the coming winter months in the comfort of your nest.