- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2016

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) - University of Northern Iowa students studying Iowa’s rarest reptile aren’t just reading about them. They’re gathering information that will appear in future books and papers.

Under the direction of biology professor Jeff Tamplin, students are studying and helping to preserve isolated populations of endangered wood turtles in Black Hawk and Butler counties.

For Zach Hall, a graduate student, the turtles will be his focus of studies for the next 2 1/2 years. It also is a unique opportunity, he said.

“It’s very rare to find an endangered species in this state,” Hall said. “It’s very uplifting to know you’re helping something that is bigger than myself.”

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (https://bit.ly/28QbEw1 ) reports that Tamplin and his students have spent years tracking movement, measuring and recording dozens of wood turtles. They have placed radio trackers on many of the reptile’s shells.

“This is almost completely new to me,” said Brad Kerkove, a UNI student. “It’s nice doing actual things.”

The student who finds it gets the privilege of naming it.

“We have a lot of them named after Game of Thrones characters now,” Tamplin said.

Tamplin and his students’ work has led to habitat improvement recommendations proven to be effective this past year. County conservation and Iowa Department of Natural Resources staff cleared trees from areas near wood turtle habitats in March last year. Tamplin and his team recorded turtles using the area, including one who spent most of the summer living there.

“The turtles are already using this area now that it’s cleared,” Tamplin said.

“It’s rare in our wildlife world to have that real-time data that gives you such a positive response so quickly,” said Jason Auel, Iowa DNR wildlife biologist.

The habitat improvement work was made possible in part from a state wildlife grant from the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service. Another state wildlife grant was awarded this spring after Tamplin and his team collected data showing the work was effective.

Loss of habitat is one of the biggest threats to the endangered turtles, Tamplin said. Encroaching development also brings predators such as feral cats and raccoons. More frequent and earlier flooding also threatens the turtles by putting nesting locations under water.

“The timing of flooding has shifted to June and July,” Tamplin said. “Most turtle eggs can only survive 24 hours of submerged before the embryo drowns.”

Tamplin has only seen two years in which water did not inundate and overtake the turtle nesting areas.

Tamplin said between habitat loss, flooding and predators, intervention is needed to help these small, isolated populations survive. The Iowa DNR gave Tamplin permission to retrieve the turtles’ eggs to incubate, hatch and start them before releasing them in the wild. Tamplin and his students collected 62 eggs and hatched 59 wood turtles. Those turtles were released in the wild this spring. They also collected eggs from spiny softshell and snapping turtle nests since flooding effects those species as well.

“Good luck,” Tamplin said as he released a hatchling softshell turtle into a backwater area along the Cedar River in May. “Don’t go looking for food pellets.”

The wood turtles did well in the lab.

“These are huge,” he said. “This one’s about the size of a three-year-old.”

Finding eggs this year has been difficult. High water covered the usual nesting areas during nesting season. Tamplin and his students found most of the turtles had already laid their eggs.

“Do you feel anything?” Tamplin asked Hall who was holding an adult female they tracked. Days earlier, the same female was found and had eggs inside her. Hall pressed his fingers under the turtle’s shell in front of her hind legs.

“No, nothing there now,” Hall said.

Before Tamplin arrived in Iowa from Louisiana in 2001, wildlife biologists knew wood turtles were likely in Iowa but no populations had been documented and studied. Tamplin began looking in likely habitats. He found a population in Butler County. After a few years of studying and tracking turtles there, Tamplin came across specimens in an area along the Cedar River in Black Hawk County.

“I guess I didn’t have to drive so far all those years,” Tamplin said.

Since then, Tamplin and students tagged, recorded and put radio transmitters on dozens of turtles. Now Tamplin and students track and retrieve the turtles with the help of the radio transmitters.

Observing the turtles’ use of habitat also has revealed hierarchal behaviors that hadn’t been observed before. Males tend to migrate along water ways to females’ home ranges.

“The females sit on their porch waiting for a visit, so to speak,” Tamplin said.

Larger, older males tend push younger smaller ones out of mating areas. However, when the larger males move on, the younger ones move in.

“Mimsy moved out so Will and Luke moved in,” Tamplin said while tracking turtles’ radio signals

“Each one has a personality,” Hall said. “You get to see that through movement and variations.”

For Tamplin’s team, tracking turtles is serious business. With high water, mud, embankments and mosquitoes it can be physically demanding. It also can be a kid’s dream come true.

“Some of it is I’m just a kid who never grew up,” Tamplin said. “Every kid is fascinated by these prehistoric creatures.”

Tamplin recalls a field trip when he was young and coming across a snapping turtle nest with hatchlings crawling out.

“There were dozens of baby snapping turtles,” he said. “If you can find a way to turn it into a career and you’ve basically never lost your inspiration, then you become a biologist.”

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Information from: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, https://www.wcfcourier.com

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