New research coming out of its shell: Mason, Smithsonian study could help save wood turtles

Two SMSC research students and a Turtle Conservation Ecology intern surveying for Wood Turtles in Virginia. Photo credit: Jessica Meck
Two SMSC research students and a Turtle Conservation Ecology intern surveying for Wood Turtles in Virginia. Photo credit: Jessica Meck

For decades, research on wood turtles—a threatened reptile species native to North America—has focused on trying to better understand and protect their populations. But there’s one area of wood turtle research that’s been lacking. This spring, a team from George Mason University, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), and the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation (SMSC) is heading to the streams to fix that.

Hunter VanDoren holding a juvenile Wood Turtle during a visual encounter survey. Hunter will be conducting a juvenile survivorship study in Virginia as part of his PhD research at George Mason University. Photo Credit: Jessica Meck
Hunter VanDoren holding a juvenile wood turtle. Photo Credit: Jessica Meck

“The assumption with animals that have a long-life history, like turtles do, is that adult survival is really the most important thing to focus on for conservation,” said J. Hunter VanDoren, a Mason environmental science and policy PhD student and graduate fellow with SCBI. “But you can’t leave out juveniles, and they have largely been left out of the literature.”

VanDoren, a Front Royal native who interned with SCBI before becoming a graduate fellow, is part of a team headed by Mason alumnus and Smithsonian researcher Tom Akre, who’s been developing science for the conservation of threatened turtles for more than 20 years.

Virginia wood turtle habitat consists of both upland protected forest regions and lowland mixed agricultural areas. Surprisingly, Akre’s data showed juvenile recruitment to be low at protected upland sites, despite reproductive rates remaining high and the land being preserved. To understand why, the team’s research will be of particular importance. It will also be a final piece needed to conduct Integrated Population Modeling and inform a Population Viability Analysis.

A juvenile wood turtle. Photo credit: Jessica Meck
A juvenile wood turtle. Photo credit: Jessica Meck

To understand the factors involved and how juveniles fare in both habitats, VanDoren will be putting radio transmitters on the young turtles (primarily identifiable by the length of their shell) and tracking them to estimate their known fate (an estimation of survival probability).

Each week, VanDoren will check on the turtles, collecting data on their status, survival, and location, as well as qualitative habitat data. Later, he will analyze the results in the lab.

The goal is to track 30 turtles at each site, but that will depend on how many juveniles can be captured and tracked, VanDoren said, adding that part of the reason juvenile research is limited is because individuals are elusive and difficult to study.

A common method of tracking Wood Turtles is the use of radio-telemetry. Pictured here is the antenna used to track adult Wood Turtles at a SCBI long-term study site in Virginia. © Jonathan Drescher-Lehman (former GMU graduate student – Smithsonian Research Fellow).
A radio-telemetry antenna used to track wood turtles at a SCBI study site in VA. Photo credit: Jonathan Drescher-Lehman.

“Juveniles are the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding their life history, how populations are reacting to land use change, and all the threats they face from habitat loss and fragmentation, road mortality, and illegal collection for the pet trade,” said Jessica Meck, Turtle Conservation Ecology project manager. “The pieces already in place are important for conservation of the species…but the missing data on juvenile survival is particularly crucial for informing landscape-scale conservation in Virginia.”

In addition to their hands-on research, Meck and VanDoren have been mentoring an undergraduate SMSC student each semester. These undergraduates learn experientially by supporting the team in the field and lab.

Jessica Meck holding an adult wood turtle. Photo provided.
Jessica Meck holding an adult wood turtle. Photo provided.

Teaching the future generation of conservationists is of critical importance, Meck said, adding that the applied conservation experience is rewarding for both mentor and mentee.

As a student, VanDoren agrees.

“Something I didn’t fully grasp as an undergraduate was just how important the experience itself is in comparison to just learning something out of a book,” he said. “It’s the experience that develops you as a scientist and allows you to fully understand what it is you’re doing and why.”

From networking with leading researchers and academics, to the experiential learning, VanDoren said his experience has been unrivaled.

“I’ve had great mentors, I’ve had great courses that I’ve learned a lot from,” he said. “I would strongly encourage anyone who’s interested in looking into Mason to do so—the opportunities are absolutely incredible and it’s been a fantastic experience at Mason and SCBI.”