Southeast Students Get Their Feet Wet Working with Alligator Snapping Turtles

Turtle- DustinFour Southeast Missouri State University students are getting hands on experience this summer in west Tennessee working with alligator snapping turtles.

Graduate student Dustin Garig of Denham Spring, Louisiana, seniors Catilin Weible of Chesterfield, Missouri, and Madison Herrboldt of Wildwood, Missouri, and junior Andrew Feltmann of Washington, Missouri, are helping with “The Status of Alligator Snapping Turtles in West Tennessee” research project. Garig is pursuing a Master of Natural Science in biology. Weible is a biology, wildlife and conservation major. Herrboldt and Feltmann are biology majors, organismal, ecological and evolutionary option.

Because the population of this unique species is declining, the goal of the research is to provide baseline data for conservation of the reptiles. Southeast Missouri State University received an $83,790 grant from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation to support this project.

Alligator Snapping Turtles are the largest freshwater turtles in North America and some of the largest in the world. The students say it can be intimidating to come face to face with a 200-pound, spiked shell animal, but they enjoy it.

“I’ve learned that although they are prehistoric looking animals that can be pretty terrifying at first glance, they are actually very docile,” Weible said.

Dr. Jon Davenport, assistant professor of biology at Southeast, is the reason the students got involved with this project. He is leading the study and needed assistance through the summer.

“I firmly believe that one of the best ways to teach students in my field is through research providing applied ‘hands-on’ experience,” Davenport said. “In ecology, it is very important for you to do well in the classroom, but equally as important for you to get field experience. Getting the field experience while being paid should help these students get an advantage over other job applicants with less experience.”

Feltmann said, “I got involved when Dr. Davenport approached me about it and I was drawn to the herptiles and location. I hope to learn more about the field while I’m there. I’ve enjoyed working with the turtles in the field.”

Turtle- Dustin, Caitlin, Andrew2

(From left) Dustin Garig, Caitlin Weible and Andrew Feltman

The project began with Davenport connecting with his colleague Joshua Ennen, a turtle biologist at the Tennessee Aquarium Institute. The two are both from Tennessee and noticed the gap in scientific literature regarding the species. They contacted wildlife biologist Rob Colvin with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) and began planning the project.

“With the help of Rob and Josh, we submitted a proposal to the TWRA to survey all of the major tributaries of the Mississippi River in western Tennessee,” Davenport said. “We were fortunate enough to get funding from TWRA which allowed us to begin this three-year project. Without the support of my collaborators and their respective agencies, we would not have been able to submit a competitive proposal.”

The project will run through 2019, and students will be involved over that time. Davenport plans to have at least one graduate student and two undergraduate students each year.

Garig and Feltman are working on assessing the population status of alligator snapping turtles. They have been trapping and tagging turtles while assessing habitat parameters to determine what the turtles prefer and what conservation methods should be implemented. Weible and Herrboldt are collecting tissue samples to examine mercury contamination in the Wolf River and Hatchie River because there is limited information about how heavy metal pollutants impact the species.

“My favorite experience with the turtles has been being able to work hands on with them. It is a lot of hard work, but to me, it feels like I am getting paid to play with animals,” Weible said.

Davenport says the goal of this study is to provide comprehensive distribution information for Tennessee, make assessments of the Mississippi River drainages for the alligator snapping turtle population, make an evaluation of past efforts and create baseline information on factors affecting movement and habitat for the animals.

“One unique aspect of this work is that we’ve gotten several different entities– academic, non-profit and a state agency– coming together with a shared interest in the conservation of this fascinating species,” Davenport said. “This is exciting because students will be exposed to multiple viewpoints and will be making valuable contacts with other experts in the field of ecology.”