A trio of Edinboro University biologists traveled to Louisiana and Mississippi this summer to determine whether map turtle species in two river ecosystems could be considered endangered.
Dr. Peter Lindeman, an EU biology professor, spent three weeks navigating through Southern rivers and tributaries with senior biology students Chelsea Gale and Ashley Gibson. Along their route, they counted turtle populations and analyzed the turtles’ diets.
“The southeastern portion of the United States is one of the great hotspots to research turtle diversity,” said Lindeman, author of 60 peer-reviewed publications on freshwater turtles. “For a variety of reasons, certain species of turtles in this area often get ignored.”
In 2015, Lindeman received a $110,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to research turtle species in the outlets of the Pascagoula and Pearl rivers. The three-year study focuses on the population of map turtles that live in these two Mississippi waterways.
Due to habitat disturbances, illegal pet collecting and trading, and other factors, the ringed sawback turtle (Graptemys oculifera) was placed on the Endangered Species list in 1986, and the yellow-blotched sawback turtle (Graptemys flavimaculata) followed in 1991. Lindeman and the student biologists investigated whether the Pascagoula (Graptemys gibbonsi) and Pearl (Graptemys pearlensis) map turtle species should also be protected.
“By taking visual surveys with binoculars and paddling down these rivers in a canoe, we get a better idea of the population density of these species,” said Lindeman, who joined the EU faculty in 1999.
The Pascagoula and Pearl map turtles, which were named after their native rivers, were considered the same species until 2010, when researchers found subtle differences in the genetic composition and distribution of the two. Scientists also found that the Pearl map turtle has a solid black stripe on its shell, while the Pascagoula has a broken black stripe. Pearl map turtles also have less yellow coloring around the circumference of their shells.
During the multifaceted study, Lindeman and his students observed not only the population and diets of these turtles, but also their tendency and frequency of basking in the sun. The Edinboro team will return to the region later this summer to draw conclusions on the threat level to the species.
Gale, a resident of Old Bridge, N.J., took Lindeman’s conservation biology course during the spring semester and became fascinated with studying turtles. During the first of two summer trips, she studied the diet of both map and sawback turtles.
“I was never really an outdoorsy person, but I was always interested in nature,” said Gale, who plans to publish her research and present her findings this fall at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center in Erie, Pa. “We spend a lot of time talking about the endangered species and how the environmental changes affect maps and sawbacks.”
While Gale studied the dietary patterns, Gibson focused on population studies. Counting individual turtles in a certain area can help determine whether a species is abundant or needs protection.
A native of Moon Township, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, Gibson said the field experience helped supplement her exposure to careers in ecology, biology and zoology.
“Going out into the field with an experienced field biologist and doing real-life work made field biology feel like a real career option for me,” she said. “Getting this hands-on experience has really given me confidence.”
Lindeman, a full-time professor and advisor to biology students, focuses his research on freshwater turtles across the United States. In 2013, he wrote a book summarizing the biology of the 14 species of the turtle genus Graptemys, titled “The Map Turtle and Sawback Atlas: Ecology, Evolution, Distribution, and Conservation.”
Logging hours on a canoe is nothing new to Lindeman, who spent his youth and young adulthood on the water.
“I always tell people that I was born in a canoe,” he said. “Spending time on the river doing research is probably no accident.”
Photo caption: Edinboro University biology students Ashley Gibson, left, and Chelsea Gale traveled to Louisiana and Mississippi with Dr. Peter Lindeman to study potentially endangered species of turtles.