© 2021 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Science & Environment

Scientists Study Species Of Turtles Presumed To Be Abundant

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Often when animals are mentioned in the news, it's because they're either dangerous or endangered. Our next story, though, is about turtles that seem to be doing just fine. And that's why a group of researchers is traveling the country to study them. They were recently in Austin, Texas, and that's where Mose Buchele from member station KUT caught up with them.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: By the end of this story, three guys get bit by turtles, and a turtle gets a tattoo. But we're going to start here with Andrew Walde. He is on the shores of Bull Creek in Austin, reflecting on his childhood in Canada.

ANDREW WALDE: I grew up in a turtle-less world.

BUCHELE: It was an unlikely start for the head of the Turtle Survival Alliance.

WALDE: Here I am 20 years later, leading an international group doing turtle work all over the world.

BUCHELE: Walde and other self-described turtle nerds came to Austin to measure, weigh and microchip turtles. It's part of a project to see how their populations change over time. Joining him was Carl Franklin of the University of Texas at Arlington.

CARL FRANKLIN: I'm a herpetologist and card-carrying turtle fanatic.

BUCHELE: And Eric Munscher, head of the alliance's Freshwater Turtle Research Group.

ERIC MUNSCHER: Our goal is long-term monitoring of species that are perceived to be abundant.

FRANKLIN: I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that science is a nice crutch for a bunch of useless SOBs to get out and have fun on a work day.

BUCHELE: Either way, let's dive in. Munscher stays on shore. Walde, Franklin and others put on snorkels and scour the creek for turtles. Walde's the first to get snapped.

WALDE: I just stuck my hand under, and he's like (imitating turtle bite).

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHELE: And they're hauling in mesh bags full of turtles, pouring them in buckets, coolers, little blue recycling bins. The team plans to return here three or four times a year. They'll see how the turtles have grown, how many are still in this location. Carl Franklin says monitoring the area will reveal more about these species in general.

FRANKLIN: Hopefully all the data and information and stuff we record will be available for nerds a hundred years, 200 years down the line.

BUCHELE: They find musk turtles, map turtles, red-eared sliders. But Eric Munscher says one kind eludes them - a Guadalupe spiny softshell.

MUNSCHER: They're just a harder turtle to come by, harder to catch overall because they're fast.

BUCHELE: Then...

MUNSCHER: Oh, is it over here?

BUCHELE: They get one. Munscher taps it. It's rubbery and rough like sandpaper.

MUNSCHER: They actually have a shell. It's just overlaid with flesh.

BUCHELE: Speaking of flesh...

MUNSCHER: Ow.

BUCHELE: Oh, no, did you get bit?

MUNSCHER: Oh, yeah.

BUCHELE: Bite number two. These researchers usually cut a notch in the shell to mark turtles they've microchipped, but with soft shells, that injures the turtle. So...

This little guy is going to get a tattoo.

MUNSCHER: You're going to get a tattoo (laughter).

BUCHELE: But before that, they haul in one of the biggest snapping turtles I've ever seen. And you can guess what happens. This time Franklin gets bit - fortunately for him only a small nip.

FRANKLIN: I hope that was on video.

BUCHELE: Unfortunately I was taking still photos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAWING)

BUCHELE: So this is the sound of a turtle getting a notch sawed in its shell.

FRANKLIN: It might be kind of like if you go to the dentist and have a scraping, you know, just kind of a momentary sort of ick but nothing traumatic.

BUCHELE: But for our softshell...

What are you going to put on it?

MUNSCHER: Number one.

BUCHELE: Why is that?

MUNSCHER: Because this is the first softshell that we've actually caught at this site.

BUCHELE: After the animals are weighed and measured and implanted with a microchip, Carl Franklin sends them on their way.

FRANKLIN: There she goes (laughter).

BUCHELE: Well, maybe we'll see you again, turtle.

And if we do, everybody watch your fingers. For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.