What: Director, TSA-North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group
Where: Houston, Texas, United States
Jordan Gray: What is your earliest childhood memory with a turtle or tortoise?
Eric Munscher: I believe I was around 7 years old when my dad and I were walking my uncle’s property and found an eastern box turtle. We of course did the “typical” novice thing and kept the turtle in a box for a few days.
JG: What is your favorite species of turtle or tortoise to work with?
EM: The Florida softshell, Apalone ferox. They live up to their Latin name. The species became a special project for the research group. Once we published our tattoo method and had a cheap and working way to mark these animals everyone wanted to be the next person to hand capture one. You can almost say it is a badge of honor in NAFTRG to have captured an A. ferox by hand.
JG: How did you first become involved in turtle and tortoise research and conservation?
EM: I was a freshman at Penn State University when I met Dr. Brian Hauge, the man that would become my mentor. I took a 7-credit research trip to Belize which included a course in tropical biology taught by Dr. Hauge. We spent almost every morning and afternoon trapping brown basilisk lizards, Basiliscus vittatus, and night trapping for giant Mexican musk turtles, Staurotypus triporcatus. This experience had me hooked! After returning from the Belize trip I asked Dr. Hauge if he did anything else like that. He responded saying he was kicking off a long-term turtle population study at the Wekiwa Springs State Park in Florida. I would later take that project as course-work for two years and then became a teaching assistant of the course for the next two.
Ultimately, when I left for graduate school in 2004 and Dr. Hauge left Penn State for a new position at Peninsula College in Washington, the Wekiwa project was left for me to continue and lead. Since 2004 the research effort has grown from Wekiwa Springs State Park to include Volusia Blue, Manatee, Fanning, Peacock, Ichetucknee, Rock, and Weeki Wachee Springs State Parks in Florida, the Comal Springs, Bull Creek, and a Harris County bayou system in Texas, and a wood turtle population monitoring project in Pennsylvania.
JG: What is the most amusing situation you have found yourself in, in the field?
EM: In 2010 the TSA offered snorkeling Wekiwa Springs the field trip for that year’s conference. The field trip had a wonderful turn out with ~15 people from the conference attending. We captured 105 turtles that day including a common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina, that had not been seen since 2002. In 2002 it was a juvenile. Fast forward 8 years later and this turtle was now a 42-pound male. Mind you this was the first-time TSA was in the field with my NAFTRG crew. We wanted to impress in every way possible; we did, in a sense. I ended up getting bitten on the thumb while working the animal up. The bite broke my thumb. Impression made!
JG: What is your favorite aspect of turtle research and why?
EM: The camaraderie that a group such as TSA-NAFTRG has. TSA-NAFTRG is a big family and we enjoy getting together as often as we can at our sites to study these magnificent creatures. The aspect of adding new students and new citizen scientists to the work we are doing is also quite neat.
JG: What advice would you give to an aspiring chelonian conservationist?
EM: Volunteer and make yourself stand out. Be willing to do the hard and dirty jobs to get noticed and above all else make your passion for turtles evident in how you carry yourself.
JG: Once your professional career as an environmental consultant is over, how do you envision retirement? Where would you live and what would you do?
EM: To own property in Belize. I would like to set it up as an ecotourism location and I would be sure to choose a property in which there are giant Mexican musk turtles on the property. I would like to retire studying that species as it is my personal favorite.
JG: What attracted you to become part of the Turtle Survival Alliance?
EM: I’ll answer this in two parts: 1) Being afforded the amazing honor of having a little research group that was started by a bunch of college friends becoming the TSA’s North American field component and 2) Getting to be a part of such a dedicated and amazing group of individuals who are trying their hardest to prevent these amazing animals from going extinct.