Faculty-student research project has long-term focus
November 24, 2009
Assistant Professor of Biology Scott Boback, right, and biology major Brendan Gallagher ’10 spend weekends studying the Eastern painted turtle for signs of change due to global warming.
On any given Sunday, you can find Brendan Gallagher ’10 and Assistant Professor of Biology Scott Boback nine miles from campus mucking around the Huntsdale State Fish Hatchery, a 167-acre confluence of trails, ponds, springs and marshes. They’re also there on Saturdays and Tuesdays, collecting as many painted turtles as possible in their homemade traps.
Their purpose: to study the turtles’ life history, from maturity rates to mating and migration patterns. Since April, Boback and several students—the latest of whom is Gallagher—have captured and released more than 1,000 turtles, documenting as many as 145 a day.
“We measure the carapace [the top of the shell], the plastron [the bottom], the tail length and the claws,” explains Gallagher, a biology major from East Hardwick, Vt.
“As we collect data, we’ll start to piece things together,” says Boback. And because painted turtles are common to the area, “you can see pretty confidently what’s influencing a healthy population and watch for fluctuations.”
Boback is a reptile expert, and most of his research has been on boa constrictors and house snakes. When he arrived at Dickinson two years ago, he added turtles to his list. “If you want to study reptiles in the Northeast, turtles are where it’s at,” he says. “There are more turtles than snakes around here.”
The project began during Boback’s spring course, The Natural History of Vertebrates, and continued through the summer and fall with help from a Center for Environmental & Sustainability Education grant.
Focusing on one specific seven-acre pond, Boback estimates that, based on its size and the number of turtles caught so far, the population could be as high as 2,000. Next spring, Gallagher will work with Geographic Information System (GIS) Specialist James Ciarrocca to create a three-dimensional map of the pond.
One of the key issues they’re addressing is how climate change might affect a healthy turtle population. “A turtle’s gender is determined by its environment,” says Gallagher. “Higher temperatures equal fewer males. If the climate changes just four degrees, it could eliminate all male turtles.”
Boback hopes to continue the study indefinitely. Given his subject’s average life span, “this could be a long-term project,” he says. “A turtle could live 30 or 40 years with our tag in it.”