Thursday, August 20, 2009

Naming our Turtles

Sorry for the delay. Now...back to blogging!
If you've taken a casual look around our museum's 1st floor lately, you probably noticed a recurring trend amoung the live animals. Many of them bear a surprising resemblance to turtles. In fact, almost half the live animal collection is a turtle. Clearly we have a soft spot for turtles of all types at the sanctuary. But the museum isn't the only place on the property to see these shelled reptiles.

Two of the most common species of turtle take up residence in the various ponds and lakes around the area. Painted turtles (like the one above) and snapping turtles are common sights in our Bechtel Lake. Since the early 1990's, Westmoreland has been monitoring the presence and abundance of painted and snapping turtles in Bechtel Lake and a small pond at the Wildlife Management Area.

Turtles are typically caught in a live trap placed in the water and baited with sardines or a leaky bottle of fish meal. Traps are checked periodically and any captured turtle is given a quick external examination for signs of trauma, parasites, or physical abnormalities. Each specimen is also measured and then marked by drilling or filing one of 24 marginal scutes. This harmless, yet permanent mark, allows each individual to be identified over time if captured again in the future.

Two weeks ago we removed four painted turtles from one of our traps in Bechtel Lake. Each individual went through the same procedure as described above, but now we've added an extra dimension to the project.
As you can see above, each turtle is getting a paint job to aid in the identification of individuals as we see them basking or swimming around the pond. Each turtle has a series of three letters on its back in white fingernail polish. Once dry, the polish is non-toxic and is of no harm to the turtle. When the scales of the turtle's shell are shed, the polish will come off too.

Here are our four recently marked turtles in Bechtel Lake:

SAM is a 5-1/4" male with a large diagnostic crack and dent on the right-side of his carapace.

LAR is a 4-1/4" male in good health. He had just a few leaches attached to the exterior of his plastron.

ASZ is a large female measuring 6-3/4". She had a number of leaches attached to her plastron which were removed before release.

SAR is a 4-1/4" male with minimal leaches attached to the plastron.

Each of these turtles were new captures. Now that each has an identity, we will be able to track their presence in Bechtel Lake. Interestingly, we have yet to recapture turtles previously marked that have been released in the lake. Have they moved out? Are they still there, but wise enough to avoid the traps? With this project we should be able to gather enough data to answer these and other questions about the turtle population in Bechtel Lake.

If you see one of the above turtles or similarly marked turtles around the sanctuary, please let us know when and where your observation was made. Your observations can be recorded in the Wildlife Sightings box at the Easy Loop trailhead, on the clipboard in the kiosk near the parking lot, or e-mail us your observation (find our address by visiting our website).

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

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