by Jordan Gray
Who: Andrew Brinker
What: Science Teacher, Paschal High School
Where: Fort Worth, Texas, USA
Jordan Gray: What is your earliest childhood memory with a turtle or tortoise?
Andrew Brinker: I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan near a nature center with a pond for where I spent countless days at during the late 1980’s and 90’s. In the third grade I began finding hatchling Midland Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) with brilliant yellow lines and red marginal scutes there. Soon thereafter I discovered hatchling Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) with their dinosaur like features. Eventually, I began to stalk the turtles that were basking on logs and then charge into the water with a fishing net in hopes of scooping one up. Not only was it fun, but it amazed my classmates at the nearby elementary school. Although I did keep a few turtles, I always returned them to the pond.
JG: How did you first become involved in turtle and tortoise conservation?
AB: I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Zoology from Michigan State University, where I had the good fortune of taking herpetology under Jim Harding. I still recall the hatchlings he brought to the lab and of finding an Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) during a field trip on campus. As an undergraduate, I had ambitions of working at a zoo after college, and was granted an internship at Zoo Atlanta with mentors Mike Fost and Sue Barnard, two herpetologists full of integrity and knowledge. Due to a staffing shortage I was given my own section of amphibians and reptiles, which was heavy in turtles. I worked with Aldabra Tortoises (Aldabrachelys gigantea), Radiated Tortoises (Astrochelys radiata), and the incredible Barbour’s Map Turtle (Graptemys barbouri) to name a few — it was heaven.
After graduating from Michigan State, I landed a zookeeper position in the prestigious herpetarium at the Fort Worth Zoo, Ft. Worth, Texas. Again, I was surrounded with an incredible group of mentors that became lifelong friends, including former curators David Blody, Clay Garrett, and Rick Hudson. I began working at the zoo in 2001, the same year that the TSA was formed in Fort Worth. While at the zoo I cared for nearly all the turtles at one point or another, but most fondly remember successfully reproducing Hamilton’s Pond Turtles (Geoclemys hamiltonii) and Vietnamese Pond Turtle (Mauremys annamensis) — both a first for the zoo.
While working at the zoo I was able to earn my Master’s degree at Texas Christian University under Gary Ferguson. The following summer I decided to change careers, and began teaching high school. With summers off, I have been able to volunteer with University of Texas – Arlington turtle nerd Carl Franklin in the crystal clear San Saba River, and more recently with the TSA’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group at Comal Springs and Bull Creek, Texas. After learning the ins and outs of turtling, I decided to begin a mark recapture survey in the Trinity River that runs through downtown Fort Worth. It is surprisingly diverse, with seven species captured to date. I take students out at least once a month to set traps and process turtles.
JG: What is your favorite species of turtle or tortoise to work with?
AB: I am most excited when I manage to capture an elusive map turtle, and the Texas Map Turtle (Graptemys versa) is my favorite. I love the ghost white eyes, spectacular colors, and their natural history. The sexual dimorphism expressed allows each sex to occupy a different ecological niche; the tiny males with their narrow heads and the behemoth females with crushing jaws. At home I currently keep a single Common Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), whose name is Blody.
JG: What is your favorite aspect of being a high school science teacher?
AB: I have the pleasure of facilitating the growth of children into young adults that care about conservation. I am able to offer new ideas and concepts that give them an appreciation for natural history and wildlife. Before half the class falls asleep as I explain the intricacies of the Krebs cycle, I show them videos and photos of turtles, insects, birds, snakes, frogs etc., that I recently found, and discuss their natural histories. The summers off also provide a ton of time for turtling!
JG: Tell us about how you began the Trinity River Turtle Survey?
AB: While volunteering with the TSA’s North American Freshwater Research Group I was amazed to see the citizen science component. After letting the experience stew for a few months I realized this would be the perfect way to get students involved with meaningful research outside of the classroom. I applied for a grant through the Andrews Institute of Mathematics and Science in the College of Education at Texas Christian University. The grant provided enough funding to purchase four traps, a PIT tag reader, calipers, and PIT tags. I also secured appropriate scientific research permits from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division.
We began studying the turtle community of the Trinity River in October 2017. In less than a year, we have marked more than 500 turtles, and recaptured 100 of them. The success of the project is not measured in the amount of turtles or data, it is about providing students with an opportunity to participate in science. Four students are coauthors with TCU colleagues on two posters at the TSA – IUCN-TFTSG Annual Symposium this month. The first poster discusses mercury concentration in turtles using toenail clippings, and the second poster discusses the diatom community found on the carapace of the turtles we’ve trapped. Not too shabby for high school students!
JG: What attracted you to become part of the Turtle Survival Alliance?
AB: The recent Radiated Tortoise confiscation relief effort is a great example of why I believe in the TSA. “Boots on the ground” feeding, watering, and providing medical assistance saved thousands of tortoise lives! What I like most about the TSA as a whole is their exemplary management of different programs and facilities throughout the world performing in situ conservation. The TSA has also allowed me to connect with a great group of turtle biologists that have similar views on conservation and turtles.
JG: What advice would you give to an aspiring chelonian conservationist?
AB: There are probably turtles close to your home—go start watching them and their environments. Read the chelonian natural history notes in Herpetological Review, which is free online. Volunteer with your local zoo or museum and join local herpetological societies!