The 100-Year Turtle Project

Researchers, scientists, and teachers are launching a 100 year study of the box turtle, North Carolina's state reptile. The turtle is not endangered but is threatened by habitat fragmentation and the study hopes to determine the health of the turtle population.

EFLAND - Imagine working on a project that you will not see completed. 

Think about it; a cause or a project that you are very dedicated to and believe strongly in. However, it would just take too long to finish. That’s the story of the Box Turtle Cooperative, a project that a team of scientists, educators and wildlife professionals launched seven years ago. It’s lead by biologists at UNC Greensboro. 

The group is studying the Eastern Box Turtle, which is North Carolina’s State Reptile and also the only land turtle found in the state. Everybody knows that turtles are slow moving but they are also slow living. Eastern box turltes mature late, they have few offspring, and they live to more than 50 years old.

However, that slow living also puts it at risk from human activity. The trouble is scientists don’t know how big a risk the Eastern Box Turtle is in because they don’t know that much about the turtle’s life cycle. The turtles can live for more than 60 years. Now you understand why some scientists may not see the end of the project.

“You have to let people know these are an animal that are of concern to us in North Carolina, because box turtles have been around a long time but we need to know what their status is now,” says Dr. Catherine Matthews, a principal investigator with the Box Turtle Collaborative and an education professor at UNC Greensboro. “Do we have box turtles in specific locations? What should we do and what can we do to maintain this population?”

As part of the study, a group of high schools students from around the state joined researchers in the woods of Camp Chestnut Ridge near Efland. It’s not easy to find a turtle because they are beautifully camouflaged. However, once the turtles are found, the location is documented, the sex is determined and it is also measured and weighed.

“We need to know all we can about these turtles because we are very concerned about how well they are doing,” says Dr. Ann Berry Somers, the chair of the Box Turtle Collaborative and biology professor at UNC Greensboro. “They need to live a long time to reproduce. A turtle may need to live 50 years before it replaces itself in the population and it may need to be older than that. They’re also slow and they are vulnerable to decline because of the fast paced world we live in and the rate of development.”

Students, with guidance from teachers and researchers, do all the work. The field work is a win-win for students, teachers and scientists. The knowledge that scientists have about box turtles and science education in general, benefits.

“Just holding them, marking them, and studying the animals, that’s my favorite part,” smiled Dominque Young, a junior at Ben L. Smith, High School in Greensboro, as he held a turtle for study.

“The parts of the turtle shell, I had no idea what they are called,” added Joseph Flowers, a sophomore at Orange High School, as he counted the sections of the turtle shell. “Like the top is the carapis, the bottom is the plastron.“

The students demonstrated the unique naming process for turtles. If you go around the edge of the turtle shell, you will notice they have scales. There is a letter assigned to each scale. A file is used to mark a scale and from that mark, the researcher counts around. The 15-year-old male turtle that was found was named A-N-V. That name is unique to that specific turtle, so if it is captured again, scientists can compare how it has changed and grown, and how its habitat has changed.

“The goal of this project is not only to learn about box turtles but also to get students out in nature and give them hands on work as well as some experience in biology and ecology,” says Christie Scott, a graduate student in science education at UNC Greensboro.

The Box Turtle Collaborative started in 2007. There are 30 locations around the state where data is routinely collected, including most of the state parks. The forest in Efland is another. UNC Pembroke and UNC Greensboro, along with Davidson College and Elon University, are involved in the Box Turtle Collaborative. They are joined by The North Carolina Zoo, The North Carolina Arboretum, North Carolina’s State Parks, the Museum of Natural Science and the Wildlife Resources Commission.

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