by Jordan Gray 

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Professionals and citizen scientists gather in New Braunfels, Texas.

This February and March as college students, professors and those just wanting a Spring vacation were making their way to beaches and ski-slopes across the nation, TSA-NAFTRG scientists and volunteers were heading to the freshwater springs of Texas and Florida for a “Spring Turtle Break”.

TEXAS

Held in New Braunfels, Texas, the Spring sampling of the Comal Springs was host to a plethora of activity including new research findings, the start of a new research offshoot, television filming, a new Live Feed segment for the TSA Facebook page, and a record-breaking attendance.

Over three sample days, from February 24 – 26, a record-breaking attendance of 31 research technicians and volunteers amassed a staggering 495 turtle captures representing four species, Chelydra serpentina, Pseudemys texana, Sternotherus odoratus and Trachemys scripta elegans. Of note was the finding that over 50% percent of the recaptures of Sternotherus odoratus, the Eastern musk turtle, were individuals that were marked between 2012 – 2013; most having not been seen since.

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Daniella Inman Bednarski, Viviana Ricardez-Perkins, Michael Skibsted and Carl J. Franklin take blood samples from a snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina.

Additionally, regarding Sternotherus odoratus, a multitude of unmarked adult and juvenile females were captured, which is congruent with a recent trend over the last several samples. For the first several years of the sampling effort, mark and recapture models showed a 4:1 male to female ratio in this spring system, however with the recent increase in female captures, this ratio has significantly decreased.

Well adorned with carpacial pitting and skin lesions on all specimens captured, the snapping turtles Chelydra serpentina residing in this spring system have been an enigma to TSA-NAFTRG researchers since the inception of sampling at the location. Hypothesizing that the immense colonization of leeches on the soft tissues of the turtles are the culprit, Viviana Ricardez-Perkins and Carl J. Franklin have begun a new offshoot of research into studying the leeches’ impact on the turtles. Assisting in this effort was Daniella Inman Bednarski of the Gulf Coast Veterinary Hospital who took blood samples of the snapping turtles captured on this trip for analysis.

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A Nat Geo Wild film crew take footage as Eric Munscher, Arron Tuggle, Jessica Munscher and Daniella Inman Bednarski record morphometric data.

Camera equipment was in high-utilization over the weekend as a film crew from Nat Geo Wild documented portions of the sampling event. Mainly focused on Daniella’s involvement with the assessment of the snapping turtles in the system, as she is a cast member on the Nat Geo Wild show “Animal ER”, the film crew captured a lot of high-quality footage of the processing system utilized by TSA-NAFTRG at sampling events. In addition, Director Eric Munscher and Senior Scientist Carl J. Franklin performed on-camera interviews and information relay for the film crew.

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Jordan Gray and Carl Franklin chat live on Facebook with viewers from around the globe.

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This sampling event also saw the first TSA Facebook Live feeds as a way to introduce our scientists, the local turtles, and our research to the world! Hosted by TSA Communications Coordinator Jordan Gray, the Facebook Live feeds were received by thousands of turtle enthusiasts across the globe. This interactive media succeeded in allowing viewers to ask their own questions to the scientists and have them answered on the spot! From stinkpot musk turtles with TSA-NAFTRG Director Eric Munscher, common snapping turtles with guest Daniella Inman Bednarski, to endemic Texas Cooters with Carl Franklin, viewers had the opportunity to remotely engage with some of the beautiful species that call Texas home.

FLORIDA

Team members exit the waters of Wekiwa Springs after a morning sample.Spring Break samples in Florida have been an annual hit for professors and students of American colleges and universities ready to put their turtle knowledge and skills to the test. With a multitude of beautiful, crystal-clear spring systems utilized by TSA-NAFTRG scientists in the state, Florida is a mecca when it comes to providing budding and seasoned turtle enthusiasts an opportunity to get involved with long-term population research. This March, the seven spring systems that TSA-NAFTRG have long-term population monitoring studies at saw a staggering number of volunteers, a bounty of turtles, a memorable manatee moment and a puzzling situation for further investigation.

Irene Gaz displays one of the snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina, captured in the springs.Led by TSA-NAFTRG’s dedicated senior scientists Eric Munscher, Brian Hauge, Wayne Osborne, Beth Walton, TSA Board member John Iverson, Santa Fe College’s Jerry Johnston, and volunteers and college students from Western Washington University, Peninsula College, Earlham College and the University of Florida, there was no shortage of enthusiastic “turtle nerds” ready to get their hands wet. With 70 volunteers entering the picturesque waters of Manatee, Fanning, Ichetucknee, Wekiwa, Weeki Wachee, Rock and Peacock Springs, there was little doubt that a Spring “turtle break” was underway.

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Female peninsula cooter, Pseudemys floridana peninsularis
A staggering, 1004 turtles representing eight species were captured during the one-week sampling event. This included the Florida softshell turtle Apalone spinifera, common snapping turtle Chelydra serpentina, loggerhead musk turtle Sternotherus minor, common musk turtle Sternotherus odoratus, peninsula cooter Pseudemys peninsularis, Suwanee cooter Pseudemys peninsularis, Florida redbelly cooter Pseudemys nelsoni, and the yellow-belly slider Trachemys scripta.

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A peninsula cooter, P. f. peninsularis, and Florida softshell turtles, Apalone ferox, in one of the hoop traps.

 A sign of the growing aptitude of the participants combined with the sheer number of volunteers was seen in the record-setting number of Florida softshell and common snapping turtles captured. With lightning-fast swimming speed and a camouflage method unlike most, the Florida softshell is one of the most difficult species of North American chelonians to hand-capture.  

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Joe Pignatelli tattoos a Florida softshell turtle, Apalone ferox.

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A perplexing situation was noticed across several of the springs in the markedly low numbers of the musk turtles, Sternotherus, captured. This genus, has always been found in relatively high numbers in the past. Although hypotheses have been made for the low-occurrence, only time and further investigation will yield a theory as to why such a precipitous drop is being seen.

A female West Indian manatee,Trichechus manatus, and her calf at Fanning Springs.

Finally, the group of citizen scientists were provided with a memorable moment at Fanning Springs as a female West Indian manatee, Trichechus manatus, had just given birth to a calf only days before their arrival. The two manatees, accompanied by one another, could easily be viewed underwater by the researchers as they combed the system looking for turtles.

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Ayla Ross and Beth Walton display a female Florida redbelly cooter, Pseudemys nelsoni.

In all, a wonderful experience was had by TSA-NAFTRG members and affiliates at our Texas and Florida sites. Each sampling session is a time of bonding with old friends and making new ones (Humans and turtles alike!) bringing enthusiastic citizen scientists into the TSA-NAFTRG fold, and gaining valuable data, both quantitative and qualitative on large populations of “common” species assemblages of turtles. 

 With the next Texas sample right around the corner, our citizen scientists are already gearing up for another immersive experience into the world of the turtle.