by Jordan Gray
Who: Grover Brown
What: Ph.D. student, University of Southern Mississippi
Where: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, USA
Jordan Gray: What is your earliest childhood memory with a turtle or tortoise?
Grover Brown: Truthfully, it’s hard to remember a time in my life when I wasn’t infatuated by turtles! The evidence however dates back to a photo of a three or four-year-old mini-me sporting a cheeky grin on the front row of the family photo… cradling a turtle. It was a box turtle (Terrapene), and as I remember, it was hard to keep me focused on the task at hand that day (taking the photo with everyone). I was too busy running around the studio making sure the turtle was okay in the corner (which is probably why it just ended up in my lap). My fascination only grew from there. I spent my childhood raising turtles that family members brought me. My days were spent flipping every log and rock in the neighborhood, collecting grubs and worms, and stealing tomatoes from the garden to feed my collection. And here I am today, a couple decades later, still as obsessed as ever!
JG: What is your favorite species of turtle or tortoise to work with?
GB: Oh, that’s a really difficult question to answer. I have had the immense pleasure of working with turtles across the globe; Southeast Asia, Australia, Central America, and of course in the Southeastern US, where I was raised. It’s extremely hard to pick a singular species. One of the things I most enjoy about working with turtles are the ecosystems you find yourself in while searching for them. Whether it’s in the wet meadows of the Southern Appalachians catching bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergi), complete with a panorama of lush green mountains, or in the rivers of the Coastal Plain where you can still find huge alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys) hulking about or buried in the bank ready to ambush prey, or watching the musk turtles (Sternotherus are my favorites) scuttle across the bottom with their big, bulbous heads, and little arms, while snorkeling the clear springs of Florida and Texas. I really just enjoy working with all turtles, and the adventures their searches supply.
JG: How did you first become involved in turtle and tortoise research and conservation?
GB: I was incredibly fortunate to attend a high school that offered a diverse array of science courses, one of which was a zoology course. At a young age, I earned the title that many of us share as “that turtle guy/girl.” When I was a junior in high school, a teacher was asking me about my curious hobby and said that if I wanted to know more about a career in herpetology, that the zoology teacher also shared a deep interest in turtles. What are the odds, right?!
As it turns out, my zoology teacher had studied under Dr. Justin Congdon for his Master’s work at the E. S. George Reserve in Ann Arbor, MI. I met with this teacher before classes one morning, and after what I’d say was about 10 minutes of talking turtles, he said that I should join him for a week or two up in Ann Arbor for this long-term mark-recapture study; a study that I would later discover basically laid the foundation of our understanding of chelonian life history, demography, and much more. Naturally, I was incredibly eager to join him, and a few weeks later I boarded a plane (for the first time in my life) with turtles on the horizon (pun intended). Up to this point I really didn’t know that someone could make a career out of turtle research or conservation, but after a week or so with Justin and my high school teacher where I checked baited hoop nets, fyke nets, marked, measured, radio-graphed, and released dozens of nesting turtles, I was sold. Since then I have boarded many more planes with turtles on the horizon, and I hope that there will be many more to come.
JG: What is the most amusing situation you have found yourself in, in the field?
GB: There have been many highly amusing situations afield, but perhaps the most amusing was one that was pretty un-amusing at the time. My dear friend, Theresa Stratmann, and I were searching for bog turtles one summer, high in the North Georgia mountains, the southern periphery of the species’ range. Most of Georgia’s bog turtle populations are on private property, and open canopy is important for the species. Unfortunately, unless a bog is intensively managed, succession and the encroachment of woody vegetation will ultimately shade out a population. For this reason, some of the last remaining bog turtle populations are in cow pastures – the cows and farmers have (unknowingly) helped maintain open-canopied wetlands still suitable for the species. As it turns out, cows are not always as docile as they seem.
Theresa had warned me that some of the cows on this one property seemed a bit feral, and that perhaps we should be more careful around them. I assured her that we just needed to walk with confidence through the field to the bog (maybe a quarter mile, 400 m for my metric friends), and that the cows would simply step aside. Well, you know what they say, “pride comes before a fall.” Turns out, Theresa was spot on (surprise, surprise… she always is), and a young bull decided he didn’t want us in his pasture. The bull would charge us, we’d throw up our hands and shout; he’d stop for a second, then charge us a little closer. For the passerby, the scene must’ve looked truly ridiculous: two biologists clad in hip waders in the middle of a cow pasture, no visible water in sight, sprinting for their lives across a field, and clawing their way up a hill and under the fence to escape being trampled. Who needs to go to Spain to run with the bulls? Come to Georgia. Look for bog turtles. It’s more-or-less the same thing. Oh, and you probably guessed it, Theresa didn’t talk to me the rest of the day.
JG: What is your dream job after you complete your graduate work?
GB: After completing my graduate work, I think my dream job would be working at a small state university or college here in the Southeastern US. It would be incredible to have a lab with a handful of undergraduate and graduate students. I really enjoy teaching, and I still really enjoy learning. I think that working at a smaller institution affords biologists opportunities on both of those fronts. Given the current job market however, I know this may sound a bit naïve, but hey, I’m just dreaming big!
JG: What advice would you give to an aspiring chelonian conservationist?
GB: I would certainly encourage them to seize as many opportunities as they can to aid professional or graduate-level biologists in the field, and to start thinking early about where they want to advance in their careers. As a first-generation college student, some things (most things) were not intuitive to me, and graduate school was an even more nebulous concept. But I attended TSA meetings as an undergraduate, and I began to get a better idea of what kind of research was being done with turtles, why it was important, and what more needed to be done. So really, my best advice would be to continue following your passion, study hard, but take time to search for turtles on the weekend – you’ll observe fascinating tidbits of ecology and natural history, begin to develop a better understanding of your study animal, how and where to catch them, and who knows, it may become the focus of your dissertation research. It did for me!
JG: What attracted you to become part of the Turtle Survival Alliance?
GB: I joined the Turtle Survival Alliance when I was an undergraduate in 2011 for a multitude of reasons. First, the TSA is committed to “zero turtle extinctions.” It’s a bold statement, but after hearing about the Asian Turtle Crisis and the implications it has for turtles, not just in Southeast Asia, but around the globe, I wanted to join the cause and support the organization in what meager ways a student could. Secondly, I think we can all relate that being obsessed with turtles can be a bit isolating at times. The TSA provides an outlet for you to essentially speak your native tongue, or that’s what it feels like for me, because when you interact with fellow turtle enthusiasts they understand you like few others do. And thirdly, when I looked into the TSA, I saw the names of esteemed biologists, hobbyist, and keepers who I’d read about for years. The wealth of knowledge the community shares is truly remarkable, and the centuries of cumulative experiences that its members have working with turtles and tortoises is astounding. What better place is there for folks like us to indulge?