Dam It! But Call Davidson to Save the Turtles First

by Robert Abare '13
Students at pond site
Turtle trappers (l-r) Leigh Ann Harden ’07, Emma Johnson ’17, Cyrus Bahram ’15 and Rebecca McKee ’14

This summer, Davidson biology students are relocating a population of local pond turtles to an aquatic "hotel" of sorts while their natural homes undergo extensive renovations. Adjunct Assistant Professor of Biology Leigh Anne Harden '07 and her students are capturing the turtles in two ponds in nearby Cornelius because they must be drained for dam work. The turtles are being moved to a temporary holding pond nearby, where students will study the effect of their translocation on their behavior. 

Earlier this year, John DeKemper from the Cornelius Parks, Art, Recreation and Culture department (PARC) contacted Professor of Biology Mike Dorcas to inform him of the planned drainage of two ponds in the Robbins Park neighborhood. Both ponds are contained by small dams, and must be drained for repair work.

Dorcas, who has been studying turtles in those ponds since 2005, teamed up with his colleague and former student Leigh Anne Harden to begin relocating the turtles to a new pond. "It has been rewarding to return to the same ponds that I studied as a biology student, but this time with students of my own," said Harden.

Harden and her student researchers, Emma Johnson '17 and Cyrus Bahram '15, capture the turtles from their home ponds in hoop-net traps baited with sardines. Captured turtles are taken to the campus herpetology lab to be marked with a unique code, measured and weighed, their statistics recorded in a database.

Some of the turtles are fitted with temperature data loggers (iButtons) that periodically record temperatures the turtle is experiencing. Measuring turtle shell temperature and comparing it to the temperature of its surrounding environment of water or mud provides insight into the behavior of the turtles and their use of the habitat. If a translocated turtle is exhibiting abnormal behavior (e.g. trying to return to its natal pond), this behavior will be reflected in the readings taken by the iButton.

Harden and her student researchers also have constructed a "basking platform" in the center of the temporary pond in order to observe how often the relocated turtles emerge from the water to sunbathe.

Learning Through Doing

Emma Johnson '17
Emma Johnson ’17, up to her waders in the water, checks a trap.

Emma Johnson '17, a rising sophomore from Washington, D.C., summarized the goal of the project. "Not only are we trying to save the turtles from harm, we are also trying to learn how translocation affects their behavior, general health, body temperature and other factors," she said.

Harden hopes that this project may lead her student helpers to become increasingly interested and invested in pursuing their own research. "It's important that these students get out in the field and start asking their own questions," she said. For example, she noted that student researcher Cyrus Bahram '15 has realized how little is known about the diet of painted turtles, and may begin to pursue research on the topic.

Johnson said, "Leigh Anne and the biology department have given us a lot of freedom to try out different study methods. They give us lots of responsibility and allow us to think for ourselves."

Community Partnership

Harden praised the cooperation of the Town of Cornelius in ensuring that the turtles face minimal harm from the habitat renovation. "It is a good example of prior planning between the dam builders, the college and the Town of Cornelius to maintain valuable natural resources," she said.

In fact, the Cornelius PARC department has given Johnson a small stipend to help fund her participation in the project.

Harden added that this project demonstrates the benefit of the college's longstanding investment in local field research. She explained, "If Davidson researchers hadn't been trapping and studying turtles in these ponds for many years, the town would have likely drained the ponds without considering the effect on wildlife."

Harden is glad that the local community has exhibited a consideration for the environment. "I think people want to live in this area partly because of natural features like these ponds," she said. "They also want to know that the natural areas are being preserved."