In Search of Turtles

An uncommon turtle discovery has sparked detective work between a University of Mary Washington professor and his students that will help shed light on the species in the Fredericksburg region.

More than two years ago, Professor of Biology Werner Wieland asked students in one of his classes to bring in a local animal. Much to Wieland’s surprise, one student brought in a species of turtle – a yellow-bellied slider – that is not known to occur in the Fredericksburg area.

Senior Bryan Finch measures a turtle he found near the Fredericksburg Canal.

Senior Bryan Finch measures a turtle he found near the Fredericksburg Canal.

The find brought up questions for Wieland— was this turtle an isolated case or is there a bigger population established? With the help of seniors Yoshi Takeda and Bryan Finch, Wieland has spent the last two summers finding out.

Wieland’s project is one of dozens funded through UMW’s Summer Science Institute, a 10-week undergraduate research program started in 1999. The students and professors will present their work at an all-day symposium on Wednesday, July 24.

Senior Yoshi Takeda (left) takes notes as Professor Werner Wieland weighs a turtle.

Senior Yoshi Takeda (left) takes notes as Professor Werner Wieland weighs a turtle.

This summer, Wieland and his students started their field work at the end of May, prepared with a small paddle boat, several nets and a mechanism to measure the turtles. Almost every day, they catch turtles in the Fredericksburg Canal to learn about the different species of turtles in the area and to estimate population sizes and growth.

They use a numbered system to keep track of the turtles, a mark re-capture technique Wieland said allows them to recognize each individual animal.

So far, the team hasn’t found another yellow-bellied slider, but they have found red-eared sliders, another species that has not been previously found in this region.

Once they have collected enough data, they will use a software program to create a report for the Commonwealth’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The report will show how large the populations of each turtle species are, if they are growing or declining and how catchable each species is.

Bryan Finch (front) and Yoshi Takeda check the nets in the canal for turtles.

Bryan Finch (front) and Yoshi Takeda check the nets in the canal for turtles.

“Having information on a small population gives you basic life history information about the animal,” Wieland said.

Takeda, a biology and physics double major with an eye toward medical school, said his two summers of research with Wieland have broadened his view of the biology field.

“I have started considering graduate school more [as an option before med school],” he said. “This project is an interesting experience into how field biology works.”

About Brynn Boyer

Brynn Boyer is assistant director of media and public relations and a 2010 graduate of UMW.

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