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Clarkson Professor's Research Into Roadkill Focuses On Impact Of Highways On Native Turtle Population
[A photograph for newspaper use is available at http://www.clarkson.edu/news/photos/turtleresearch.jpg]
This summer, North Country residents and seasonal tourists driving cars or riding bicycles over area highways encountered a surprising site: researchers from Clarkson University carefully collecting roadkill, poking around road-side ditches, and wandering waist-deep through marshes holding antennas over their heads.
Clarkson Biology Professor Tom Langen and a team of undergraduate student researchers spent six weeks tagging and tracking turtles as part of a larger three-year research project that will assess the impact of roads on the demography of turtles.
“We are compiling data to get an idea of the population of area turtles and determine what percentage of that population is being killed on roads, explained Langen. “This is significant as the rate at which turtles are being killed on roads may have a real and devastating affect on the turtle population as a whole.”
There are three species of turtles in the marshes under study by Langen and his students: snapping, painted and the threatened Blanding’s turtles. Individual turtles can live up to 60 years and are slow to mature and reproduce. They lay their eggs on land, preferably in dry, sandy areas near marshes. As it turns out, roadside ditches make attractive nesting sites.
“Turtles are actually drawn to the roads. More roads and more traffic means more turtles get killed. If young adult turtles are killed before they have a chance to reproduce, there will be a noticeable decline in the turtle populations in the area,” explained Langen. “Although ecologists are uncertain about the short term and long term impacts of reducing turtle populations, we do know there will be undesirable consequences for the area ecosystem.”
In undisturbed environments, turtles account for a significant amount of the animal biomass in a freshwater wetland. Large turtles are top predators in aquatic systems, and are also important scavengers. Turtles are also one of the most important ecosystem links between terrestrial and aquatic environments.
“A reduction in the size of a turtle population may slow nutrient cycling and recycling, reduce the ecosystems’ flows of energy and nutrients between wetlands and the bordering fields and forest, and alter the populations sizes of other species within the community,” explained Langen.
Langen’s summer research team included two Clarkson undergraduates, Kimberley Ogden ’05 and Marilyn Gonzalez ’05, and Mary Wright, a junior biology major from Bowdoin College in Maine, who joined the project as part of Clarkson’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, Clarkson’s REU program invites ambitious undergraduate students from across the country to apply for research internships to work on projects in environmental science and engineering with a primary focus on sustainable management of environmental systems.
Wright found that a summer spent working on an environmental project that included biological fieldwork was a rewarding experience that gave her an opportunity to learn a new set of skills, as well as a clearer idea for future professional plans.
“I loved working in the field every day and working with the turtles in the lab,” said Wright. “I learned to radio track, a valuable skill in wildlife ecology. Working with the larger snapping turtles was especially exciting. At times they were difficult to handle, but it was very rewarding to track and locate them in the swamps because of all the hard work that went into tagging them. But the experience reinforced how much I loved studying biology, and I plan on attending graduate school.”
Langen’s turtle demography research project is partially funded by a grant from the Clarkson Center for the Environment.
PHOTO CAPTION: Marilyn Gonzalez (left) of Bronx, N.Y., a Clarkson senior majoring in environmental science and policy, and Kim Ogden of Auburn, N.Y., a junior majoring in biology, remove a captured snapping turtle from a hoop trap and put it in a bucket to take to shore for marking and measuring.