Faces of the TSA Vol. 5

by Jordan Gray

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Who: Nichole Bishop

What: PhD Candidate, University of Florida

Where: Florida, USA

Jordan Gray: What is your earliest childhood memory with a turtle or tortoise?

Nichole Bishop: I’ve always been around turtles (as evidenced by numerous pics of me as a toddler walking around with Box Turtles (Terrapene) or River Cooters (Pseudemys)), but one of my favorite memories involved a Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina). My uncle showed up at our house with a “surprise” in the back of his truck. He had seen the Snapping Turtle sunning itself in the middle of the road and had somehow managed to coax it into a large box so he could bring it over for us to see. I remember feeding it raw chicken skin with a pair of tongs (probably not a good idea, now that I think about it), and was amazed at how fast and powerful it snapped at the food! That afternoon, we returned it to the lake by the road where he had caught .

JG: What is your favorite species of turtle or tortoise to work with?

NB: Dermatemys! They are so ancient and he Dermatemydidae family has remained relatively unchanged for millions of years. The Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii) is especially important to me because they are the last living genus in their family and we know so little about them. They are also very unique. For example, they are a freshwater turtle that doesn’t bask. I also think they are a subtly beautiful species with their dull olive coloring and that bright orange head.

JG: How did you first become involved in turtle and tortoise research and conservation?

NB: It was very informal at first. I had about a year between my master’s degree completion and the start of my PhD and I didn’t want to waste that time. So, I started tracking and monitoring Florida Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina bauri) at a 50-acre urban nature preserve by my house. In that first year, I had identified approximately 10 individuals of both sexes and all age classes. Four years later, I have over 30 individual turtles identified with about a third of them being multiple recaptures. Although I don’t intend to publish this data any time soon, the nature center on the property has used my study to establish a baseline monitoring program. This is really important for them, given the location of the property, and the recent development of subdivisions near the preserve.

JG: What is the most amusing situation you have found yourself in, in the field?

NB: One of my most amusing situations in the field happened about two years ago. I was in Belize working with Dermatemys on a trip that was only supposed to last a few days. The night before we were supposed to leave, there was a heavy rainstorm (even though it was the dry season), and the whole area flooded. In some parts of the field site we were working, the water was thigh-high where it would ordinarily be dry. The river we had crossed on the way into the site had become raging rapids, and entire trees were swept downstream faster than I had ever seen water move! Even worse, the 4-wheel drive vehicles we had used to get to our site had also been swept away in the middle of the night! Needless to say, our trip home was indefinitely postponed until the water receded. When we could eventually cross the river, we had no mode of transportation other than our own legs. We hiked out six miles in the mud and occasional knee-deep water, carrying our luggage and all of our equipment! Obviously, we made it out safely, and had an amazing story to share with everyone back home.

JG: If you weren’t working on a doctoral degree, what would you want to be?

NB: I honestly can’t imagine a better fit for myself. I’ve always been interested in conservation, especially with turtles and tortoises. I am very fortunate to be able to fulfill a childhood dream in the path I have chosen. However, if I did have to pick a completely different path, I might study epidemiology; and if I had the skill set, I would also like to study dance.

JG: What advice would you give to an aspiring chelonian conservationist?

NB: You must be an advocate for yourself. This field is very popular and a lot of people want to work in turtle and tortoise conservation. Be persistent and if things don’t work out right away, use those experiences as learning opportunities and adapt. Don’t rely on other people to make your dreams happen…be proactive. Make connections, teach yourself, and be willing to help others to gain experience.


JG: What attracted you to become part of the Turtle Survival Alliance?

NB: I was definitely drawn in by the passion of the people involved with the TSA. They all work so hard; from the people that travel to remote (and sometimes dangerous) locations to those that organize awareness /education events, to those behind the scenes caring for all of the assurance colonies of captive specimens. They all go above and beyond for the sake of saving turtles. It’s amazing to see how a group of dedicated people can make such a difference for turtles and tortoises worldwide due to a shared passion.