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ISU takes students to turtle camp

By Staff | May 28, 2010

Fred Janzen, left, and postdoctoral researcher Dan Warner hold hatchling painted turtles at the Horticultural Research Station near Ames.

AMES – Students from Iowa State University and other colleges will join high school students from Iowa and Illinois to spend the next month and a half studying turtles on an island in the Mississippi River.

Fred Janzen, a professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology at Iowa State, created a “Turtle Camp” in 1995, the year after he joined Iowa State, that gives students the chance to “get out and do science.” The students will study turtles nesting through the end of June at the Thomson Causeway Recreation Area near Clinton.

The high school and undergraduate students get a taste of research through the TREE program, which stands for Turtle Camp Research and Education in Ecology. Under-represented college students and high schoolers from urban areas who are identified by teachers as talented in science participate to gain experience in biology. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Ecological Society of America.

Janzen and his students camp in tents and cook outdoors. Among other things, they examine the affect of predators on turtle nest location and how location affects the sex of turtle offspring.

For such a long-lived animal, turtles in the wild face many challenges – so many that most species are considered endangered. Painted turtles, the primary organism studied, can live up to 40 years. Box turtles, snapping turtles and Blanding’s turtles can live much longer, even up to a century.

One of the interesting characteristics of most turtles is that they have environmental sex determination linked to temperature. Janzen said temperature determines how many male and female offspring are hatched, which directly links to whether a population will remain stable or survive.

“You could have, to the uninformed eye, a healthy population of turtles, yet you could have just one sex and because turtles are so long lived it would appear that they are fine, but they are in fact functionally extinct,” he said.

Studying turtles would be an interesting scientific pursuit in itself Janzen said, but this experience offers more.

“We’re using turtles as a model organism to help us answer interesting questions in environmental biology, ecology, evolutionary biology, genetics, behavior, all these big fields of biology; and conservation, increasingly conservation,” he said.

When he started decades ago, Janzen says conservation wasn’t a primary goal, but it has naturally come out of what they do and that’s partly because three-quarters of the turtle species in the world are considered critically imperiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“Our original motivation for the research was basic science, but it has application and it is being applied,” Janzen said.

He advises the Iowa Department of Natural Resources on policy for turtle trapping in the state, and on reptile conservation, particularly in respect to climate change. Many conservation groups also use his research findings in guidelines, practices and programs.

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