Turtles help UT researchers learn more about the effects of harmful algae

[USA] The health of Lake Erie is an issue that affects millions of people. Algal blooms are one of the biggest concerns.

In August 2014, Toledo tap water was declared unsafe for several days because of a bloom. And it’s not just people and pets affected by the algae issue.

There’s been a lot of research done through the years on the effects of toxic algae on people. There hasn’t been a lot done on wildlife, especially amphibians and reptiles like turtles. A University of Toledo professor and some of her students have been trapping turtles at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge for weeks. They hope what they’re doing will provide valuable information for all of us .

There’s a lot to learn about the waters of the lake and its tributaries
Dr. Jeanine Refsnider is an Assistant Professor of Ecology at the university, “Turtles are a very good indicator species.”

Meaning their health is a good indicator of the health of the overall environment, “People really don’t know anything about the effects of microcystins on aquatic wildlife”

The first order of business when it comes to learning more is trapping the turtles.The trapping does not hurt the turtles and there are two kinds of traps. One that uses bait to lure the turtles in, the other catches them while they’re sunbathing. Jessica Garcia is a UT grad student working on her master’s degree, “Basically there are two planks on the basking trap. The turtles climb up to bask in the sun on the 2x4s. When they go to get back in the water there is a net underneath, so there is a 50-50 shot they will jump into the net. Of course if they jump out, they are free ”

Once the turtles are taken out of the traps, they’re first checked to see if they’ve already been caught. Every turtle that’s brought in is marked by filing scales on it’s shell. If they’ve already been caught, they’re released. If not, baseline information is collected, including blood samples and measurements, “We flip the turtle upside down and measure the tail end of the shell to the top. We also measure the width of the shell. If it’s a female, we also check to see if she is pregnant. We can feel the eggs in the underside”

Most of the turtles being studied are painted or map. Dr. Refsnider says the information from them helps other species, “We do have a couple species of rare turtles at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, so we are studying the common species and using them as an indicator for what might be happening to the rare species.”

Other than the valuable information collected, Dr. Refsnider says one of the best parts of the program is that it gives undergrad and graduate students real-life experience, “This is the kind of thing they’ll be doing in their career. They get hands-on experience and are able to see what’s going on on the ground instead of just reading about it in textbooks.”

And the research will help all of us, “The idea with Lake Erie is to make sure it stays drinkable, fishable and swimmable for all of us. A big part of keeping the lake healthy is keeping he wildlife healthy that lives in and around the lake.”

The turtles are taken back to a UT lab for a couple days for testing and then released. Data from that testing will be analyzed later this year. The goal is to expand this research to include snakes and frogs next year.

If you’d like to learn more, we’ve posted a link.


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