A Day in the Life of an Algonquin Turtle Researcher

With the arrival of fall in Algonquin Park the turtles are preparing for hibernation. The turning of the seasons also marks the end of another year of turtle research in the Park. The summer of 2016 was the 45th field season of the long-term Snapping and Painted Turtle research project based out of the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station.

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Taylor (left) and Steven (right)

We were fortunate this season to spend some time with turtle researchers Steven Kell and Taylor Wynia, and experience a typical day in the life of an Algonquin turtle researcher.

On a warm bright day in late June, we started the morning with a quick meal and then head to the lab work on the turtles and eggs collected the previous day. Starting off the day at 7:30 am in the lab down at the lake on another beautiful day in the middle of Algonquin doesn’t seem so bad until you are told the the researcher were out in the field collecting turtles and eggs until 2 am the previous evening!

The lab work is organized and meticulous. The notes being made by the researchers form the basis of an ongoing project and build on the observations of many other dedicated researchers over a 45 year period.

The lab work starts with taking detailed notes on any turtles which have not been previously captured. The lab is filled with buckets and containers holding a mixture of over 20 Midland Painted Turtles and Common Snapping Turtles. A close look at the turtles reveals that some have notches on their scoots and others do not. We are told that those without notches are entirely new to the project.

Taylor and Steven, as they go about the business of taking measurements and making their notes, explain that the Painted Turtles are marked with both brightly coloured numbers and notches. The bright numbers are for seasonal identification and the notches are a long-term method of marking each individual. Early in the season they trap and mark as many turtles as possible within the research area.

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Helping out in the lab.

They show us a container of white and red nail polish which is used to paint the numbers on the turtles for the seasonal marking: white for females and red for males. These numbers help to easily identify the turtles in the field. They signify that the turtle has been captured that season and also allow the researchers to note nesting behaviour for each individual turtle from a distance.

We notice that some of the smaller turtles are having numbers painted on the underside, the plastron, instead of on the top of their shell, the carapace. Taylor explains that, “We paint numbers on the juveniles on the plastron because we found that the bright white and red numbers seem to act as a marker for predators; the adults are not at risk, but we take this precaution with the little ones.”

Each of the previously marked but newly painted turtles is identified based on the notch code in the scutes and various measurements are recorded to document the size and mass of the turtle. Any new scars or general observations are also recorded to update the data base kept on each turtle in the study.

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A brightly numbered male.

The researchers then start with unmarked turtles. These are entirely new to the research project and so a new observation form is completed for each turtle. Mass and other key measurements are recorded, any scars or wounds are recorded, characteristic patterns on the carapace and plastron are noted, and each turtle is marked with a unique notch code that will identify it for future researchers. Notches are filed in the marginal scutes in a pattern which translates to a unique number code for that individual. In addition to notching, the turtles are also injected with a PIT tag. This tiny transponder is similar to the technology used with pets and it allows the turtle to be scanned with a reader to identify its identity code. Steven explains, “this new technology will make future tracking and data collection easier”.

Once the turtles have been measured, painted and tagged, Steven and Taylor begin opening up large square Tupperware containers filled with damp vermiculite. A light brush with their fingers reveals rows of eggs each individually marked with a code and number. The code corresponds to the nest site as well as the specific female that laid the eggs the previous evening. The number reveals the order the eggs were temporarily removed from the nest. Each egg is measured to record length, width and mass and this data is recorded in the logs for the female parent. The eggs are handled delicately and after being measured are placed back into the vermiculite containers for the trip back to the research site.

After a morning of measuring turtles and eggs, we have time for a quick lunch and then head out to the research site located along Mizzy Lake Trail at Wolf Howl Pond and West Rose Lake. Once we get to the site, the turtles are released and swim away seemingly completely unaffected by their overnight experience. They very quickly return to their favourite basking sites in the mid-day sun.

IMG5.jpgTaylor and Steven then bring out the containers of eggs and start the process of returning each egg in its proper order to the specifically marked nesting cavity. We ask why the effort to make sure that the eggs go back exactly to the same site and in exactly the same order and position as they went out of the nest the night before. Taylor explains, “The eggs go back exactly where they came from since we know that factors such as the location and depth affect the temperature of the developing embryo, which plays an important role in determining the sex of the hatchling.” After carefully replacing the eggs and marking the nest location, another after noon and evening of monitoring turtle nesting begins.

Steven and Taylor each take a section of the research area to monitor. The research takes place along the most northerly section of the Mizzy Lake Trail along the railway corridor lined on both sides by ideal turtle habitat. These large ponds with bog mats and sections of open water provide plenty of basking locations on logs, stumps and a beaver dam. We can quickly pick out numbered male and female painted turtles.

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As the afternoon turns to evening, the turtles begin cruising the banks of the ponds and Steven and Taylor begin taking notes on the behaviour of the marked turtles. They refer to this as staging. They watch as turtles swim along the waters edge and start to select their potential nesting locations. It isn’t long before the first turtles start crawling up the bank and start pushing into the sand with their front legs and nose. The researchers note the location and how long the female searches and digs for its desired nesting spot. This is tricky business. Approach too closely and the turtle flees down the bank and back into the water to begin the process all over again.

As we look closely at a particular female Painted Turtle who seems very interested in her potential nesting site, we notice that the sand seems damp after a such long hot afternoon. Taylor explains, “The turtles take in water and release it at the nesting site to dampen the ground”. Taylor then marks the nesting site with a small flag and explains that it will take her anywhere from 35 minutes to 1 and 1/2 hours to complete the nesting process. Generally on warmer days the process is faster than cooler days. Since the researchers make a note of every female’s nesting behaviour and nesting location, they can’t stay and watch. They have to keep moving along the trail to observe the various turtles that have chosen this evening to nest. By walking back and forth along the trail, they are able to keep notes on every nesting female including which individual is nesting, the nesting location, and when nesting started and then completed.

img6.jpgWalking along the trail dotted with nesting turtles, we notice a large female Snapping Turtle. Taylor says, “ we need to be a little more cautious because the snappers seem to scare a little easier. She will also take about an hour to 2 and 1/2 hours to complete her nesting.” As we watch from a respectful distance, the female makes a half hearted attempt to dig and then moves off repeating the behaviour. She seems to be unsatisfied and after ploughing dirt around she heads back down the bank and swims off. “I have seen this same turtle do this now for a couple of nights”, says Taylor. “Turtles will sometimes scout out sites over several nights before finally picking a nesting site.”

As the evening goes on it slowly gets darker and the bugs come out. We all cover up in our bug jackets and it is not long before we are covered in black flies and mosquitoes. Then we have another visitor along. A large bull moose comes up out of the pond onto the trail and Taylor says, “Oh, thats Charlie. He’s a young male that visits us almost every evening.” Taylor goes on to explain that they regularly see moose at the research location. He then, with a laugh, tells a few stories of his late night moose encounters.

img9.jpg“Once I was busy with a nest and it was dark so I didn’t really notice much else around me until I looked up and to see a moose looking back down at me”, he says.

“Another time I was walking along the trail where it narrows down with forest on both sides and a big bull decided to use the trail at the same time. I stood off to the side with my back against the trees and the bull slowly passed me. I was holding a bucket with a turtle in it and the turtle decide to move. The scraping noise startled the bull and he turned to look right at me, his nose just a few inches from my face. I held my breath and he decided I wasn’t much to worry about and slowly wandered down the path!”

Since Steven and Taylor are on the trail in the late hours they regularly see a lot of wildlife. In addition to regular visits by moose, they also have regular visits by the local beavers, as well as otters, and the odd Black Bear. They carry whistles and bear spray, but, other than being a little unnerved by having a bear stare at them from a distance of 10m along a dark trail at 1 in the morning, they have not had any trouble.

As we walk further along the trail we notice an unmarked female nesting. Special notes are taken and this turtle is carefully monitored so that she can be captured when she finished nesting.

IMG7.jpgAround ten, we begin to notice a change in the turtles. No new turtles are coming up the banks and more and more turtles are completing their nests. Now we begin going back to the completed nests and dig up the eggs. This is done very carefully and methodically. The nest is excavated very slowly so that the eggs are not damaged and the nest structure is not compromised. The eggs are pulled out one at a time and a pencil is used to mark each with a code and number before being placed, in order, in vermiculite.

As we make our way through the evenings nesting sites, we notice that a few sites have been dug up. Taylor explains that the nests have very high rates of predation. “It seems like almost everything makes a meal of turtle eggs. I once saw a chipmunk clean out a previously marked and documented nest of twelve eggs in less than 15 minutes! Eggs are eaten by otters, skunks, racoons, and foxes”, he adds.

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The results of nest predation.

Ravens are also a predator and we have watched a few fly over this evening. Taylor says that he has seen ravens walk around nest markers as if searching for the nest and he explains that they now place the markers a distance from the nest so as not to reward such behaviour in the predators. He says they have also seen ravens flip turtles while nesting to steal the eggs. “Ravens have even flipped the buckets containing unmarked turtles”, says Taylor.

This evening was a busy night for the turtles and the process of digging up each site and taking notes takes several hours. The detailed notes include air temperature, water temperature, soil temperature, number of eggs, female laying the eggs, start of nesting, laying time, covering time and nest location.

After finishing Taylor’s section of the trail we make our way to Steven who is still in the process of documenting nesting sites on the Wolf Howl Pond section. This stretch seems particularly popular with the Painted Turtles this evening and there are quite a few nests to complete late into the night.

Finally with all of the new turtles captured and all the eggs safely stored in their containers, we hike off to the vehicle and drive the dark roads back to the lab. We then get to head off to our camp site for a good nights sleep. Taylor and Steven put the turtles and eggs into the lab and go catch a few hours of sleep before they have to wake up again for the next days work.

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