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Shelby Does '17

"Turtle Population Dynamics in Three Ponds at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center"

Major/Minor: Environmental Science
Hometown: Pen Argyl, PA
Project Advisor(s): Dr. Frank Kuserk

Briefly describe your project.

This summer I studied three ponds at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center by capturing and monitoring Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta). We were able to use our data to estimate the size of the turtle population, age structure, and sex ratio in each pond. I also performed spatial analysis using GIS (geographic information systems) software around our research site to understand the human impact on the area. This research contributes to a larger project called TurtlePop, run through the Ecological Research as Education Network (EREN), that aims to study the effects of urbanization on turtle populations. It also supports the Lehigh Gap Nature Center in their mission of local conservation.

Why did you decide to turn your idea into a SOAR project?

Dr. Kuserk has been involved in this project since 2012, taking classes out annually to conduct turtle trapping. This, however, was the first year that students devoted an entire summer to trapping and the first time that all three ponds could be sampled. I had gone with Dr. Kuserk's classes on turtle trapping trips and found it absolutely fascinating, so I was excited to hear that he was looking for SOAR students to take on the project for ten weeks of intensive study.

Dr. Kuserk has immense amounts of experience in field ecology, and getting to study under him was an incredible learning opportunity. We were able to incorporate new equipment and techniques in our project. It was also great getting to know some of his colleagues and learn from their expertise in a number of fields, particularly professors, academic professionals, and research students from other schools, as well as leaders of local nonprofit environmental organizations like the Lehigh Gap Nature Center.

What has been your biggest obstacle so far?

Our biggest obstacle was the fact that our project was so field-intensive. The weather was a big factor in limiting our trapping opportunities, and getting to the sites involved a lot of hiking and carrying equipment. Often times I'd come home smelling like pond water, and at one point, we needed a tow truck to save us from some mud. Leeches and ticks were all part of a good day's work, and snapping turtles were a job hazard--but all of these creatures were also what made this ecosystem so wonderfully diverse. Muscle fatigue aside, it was amazing to get to spend a summer outdoors doing what I love.

What has been your biggest takeaway from this experience?

My biggest takeaway has been getting to know that people are excited about the project I was so invested in, and an inspiration to continue this work. Getting cheered on by other student researchers, Dr. Kuserk and other educators, and especially people who aren't involved in my field at all is hugely motivating. It's taught me that the work that I'm doing is something that people care about and I'm proud of all the time I've put in, and motivated to continue taking on this type of endeavor.

What was the result of your project?

Within our three ponds we discovered that: Mallard pond has a population of approximately 189 Painted Turtles, Kingfisher Pond has approximately 242 turtles, and Wood Duck Pond has approximately 130 turtles. Two ponds, Mallard and Wood Duck, showed sex ratios of approximately 50-50 between the sexes, while Kingfisher pond showed slightly skewed sex ratios of approximately 63% female to 37% male. Mallard and Wood Duck Ponds had 9.8 and 11.8% of the population in the juvenile stage, while Kingfisher was again an outlier with 37.8% of the population being juvenile. We're still working and formulating hypotheses about why Kingfisher's ratios were so different from the other two, but it provides a fantastic starting point for other research into the lives of these turtles. We were also able to confirm that individual turtles moved from pond to pond, suggesting that these may not be three distinct groups of turtles, but one more fluid population that encompasses all three ponds.

Will you expand on your research after this summer is over? If so, where would you like to see it go?

I do plan to expand upon my research throughout my Senior year as a Honors Project. Now that we understand the basic characteristics of our study population, we can delve more deeply into specific questions we have. The first part of my Honors Project aims to assist in another nation-wide study through EREN dedicated to understanding the connection between habitat type and the nesting success of Painted Turtles. The second facet of my project deals with the local movements of these turtles between the three ponds and the surrounding area, to determine the degree of fragmentation between these ponds. To track movement, we'll use data from previous and new trapping sessions, as well as by using radio tracking and telemetry to find turtles at specific geographic points. By mapping these turtles, we hope to discover what their range is within this area. In the future, I would like to see this research continued as a learning experience for others who are interested in field ecology, and an opportunity to help get to know these local amphibian populations better so that we can better protect them.

In your own words, how do you feel about being awarded this opportunity?

I feel absolutely honored and humbled to be awarded the opportunity to do undergraduate research through SOAR. It's great to know that other people are supportive of the work that I love to do. I would absolutely recommend that other students participate in SOAR because the experience of summer research was like no other I have ever had. Getting to work closely with a faculty member on a project that they are so invested in is thrilling, and the other research students you meet along the way--from inside and outside of your field--become a second family. You're all united in a program that values and supports undergraduate research and gives students the opportunity to generate a significant contribution to their field. I have gotten to meet so many people, and use so many techniques and tools, that this experience is a keystone in my academic and professional advances, to be sure.