Carapace Chronicles

Population Decline
June 26, 2010, 6:34 pm
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It’s been an exciting week! We had the turtle tracking dogs here for four days and I’ve reach 131 turtles! I been really grateful to have some help from the high school students with CRESO. They’ve been really great and have helped me get things done faster and more efficiently!

I thought I would segway into the population decline of reptiles. The decline of amphibians has been well-publicized and reptiles are in the same peril. Reptiles and amphibians are environmental indicators and can often tell us the health of an ecosystem before we know it. For this reason it is important to determine the causes of the declines and help prevent further die-offs.

Many people have found frogs with an extra leg or a tail after the tadpole stage, however, the same hasn’t been found in reptiles. This has resulted in less education of the public about reptilian declines. They can be due to disease, habitat fragmentation, and the other stresses they encounter in the environment. As suburbia has expanded, the stresses on the turtles have increased exponentially causing more susceptibility for infection. With this and the entrance of novel diseases, the turtle population is declining at an extremely fast rate. As I mentioned before, we are testing for some of these diseases in this population.

In addition, my study site has sivilculture and clear-cut sites within it. In the past three years, the turtles here have been affected by these habitat changes, a drought, and a new subdivision built on one edge. There is also a quarry nearby. These turtles experience a great deal of different stressors and could be more at risk for infection!

With population declines occurring in reptiles and amphibians, health surveys have become very important!

Catchy Disease
June 25, 2010, 12:50 am
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Things are going well in the field, although the heat is really slowing everything down.  Yes, extreme heat without rain can actually slow a reptile down.  We reached our 100th turtle this week and sampling is going well. I’m having a really good time and becoming more and more comfortable with the turtles despite the heat!

I thought I would take some time out to share how I got involved in this project.  My mentor, Dr. Matt Allender, is studying diseases that have the potential to be fatal to turtles.  Ranavirus is one of the diseases he is most interested in. It is one of the causes of well-publicized amphibian declines across the world.  It has also been attributed to some turtle die-offs in the world.

We are collecting oral swabs from the box turtles, and also some species of aquatic turtles, so that we can run a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to determine if a turtle has the disease. Collecting these samples have been challenging, try and get a turtle to say AHH!

Through the physical exam I perform, I look for signs of disease in a turtle, such as spots on the roof of their mouth that might indicate sickness. In addition to spots in the mouth, turtles with Ranavirus appear like they have a cold – runny eyes, snotty noses, and a general feeling of sickness.

When this disease first appears in a population, it likely leads to massive die-offs that could cause population declines.  This is why it so important to look for the answers of where, why, when, and who gets these diseases.

For more information I have included a link to an article on Ranavirus infections in box turtles,


The Eastern Box Turtle
June 16, 2010, 3:37 pm
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Eastern Box Turtles are part of a group known as the hinge-shelled turtles, or box turtles. They are found only in the Eastern United States and are a purely land animal. The species I am studying, Terrapene carolina carolina, is one of 5 subspecies of the Eastern box turtle.

The “hinge” is the unique characteristic of this family. It is located on the plastron, or the bottom part of the shell, and when combined with the large, domed carapace, or the top part of the shell, it will allow for total closure of the shell.

The carapace is normally brown to almost black with orange or yellow splotches covering the shell. There is no difference between males and females in the color of the shell. Below you can see variation in the different patterns on the carapace.

There are two different ways to tell a male box turtle from a female box turtle. First, males have a concave plastron that allows an easier time mating while the female plastron is flatter. It’s a hard shape to capture in a picture, but in the picture above, the word “hinge” sits in the concave divot on the plastron.

Another way to tell males and females apart is by eye color. The males typically have red eyes and the females have a more brown version. However, there are turtles out there that don’t fit this mold! Also, often when catching turtles they often retreat into their shell and we never see their eye color so the plastron then becomes the easiest way of determining sex. Below, the first picture is of a female box turtle peeking out of her shell and you can see her brown eyes, following that is a male with his red eyes.

Our box turtles prefer forested land and can often be found in ravines or on ridgetops. They are usually found among leaf litter. If we get lucky and it has rained, we can find them crossing roads, in fields, or near streams. They also like fallen logs and moistened ground to dig up their meals, such as worms, snails, and other bugs. In fact the other day we caught one that was eating a beetle! They also eat berries, flowers, and mushrooms.

As you can see the Eastern box turtle is a fabulous little turtle, or at least I think so!

A Little History of CRESO
June 9, 2010, 12:58 am
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Hey everyone!

We had a successful weekend.  We were able to perform health checks on 10 more turtles!  I was working closely with John Byrd of CRESO.  He and his team find the turtles and collect morphometric data, and then present them to me for the health work-up.  It’s a pretty amazing partnership, so I thought I would tell you a little about them:

CRESO, or the Clinch River Environmental Studies Organization was established in 1989 jointly by three institutions: the Anderson County, TN public school system, the Department of Energy, the Oak Ridge Schools, the Oak Ridge National Lab- Environmental Science Division, and the University of Tennessee Forest Resources Research & Education Center. John Byrd and Kathy Strunk are the teacher masterminds behind this project and they have been educating and collecting data since CRESO was established. I have had the pleasure to work closely with both of these people, and just in the past two days I have learned so much from them and their passion for education and conservation is astounding!

They coordinate and mentor a combination of high school and undergraduate students through field research and long-term data monitoring. For most of these students, it is their first exposure to working in the field.  It is a really interesting experience and I have met some really great high school students who are very interested in my research.  I am excited about the opportunity to teach and share my passion and experience with them as well.

In addition to box turtles, CRESO does long term data monitoring with aquatic turtles, salamanders, snakes, and birds, among many other projects. The goal of this organization is not only to have students exposed to science and scientific research but also to establish long-term data for many of these species for which many not much has been discovered.  Furthermore, there are 6 box turtles that are fitted with GPS transmitters and two high schoolers volunteer their time, often 3-5 days a week to track and monitor the activity patterns of these turtles. When box turtles are collected, parameters such as carapace length, height, width, plastron length and height, habitat, temperature, wind speed, GPS coordinates, eye color, and annuli are recorded. All the turtles are also assigned a unique number so that all future encounters can be linked to that turtle. On Sunday, they reached 721, meaning they have taken data on 721 box turtles since 2006, which I find pretty impressive.

Here we are walking through the field site trying to locate a turtle.

All in all I’ve had a lot of fun so far! Lots of turtles!

Here is a link to CRESO’s website if you would like to know more about them:

June 1, 2010, 3:37 pm
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Welcome to the Carapace Chronicles!

My name is Brittany Way and I just finished up my first year at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. This summer, a generous grant from the Morris Animal Foundation’s Veterinary Scholars Program and the support of my advisor Dr. Matt Allender, has allowed me to travel to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to study the health of a population of Eastern Box Turtles. This blog is intended to give you an insight into my work this summer and also into the importance of veterinary medicine in the conservation of species.

Reptiles, such as the Eastern Box Turtles, are extremely susceptible to environmental disturbance. Habitat fragmentation and destruction can lead to environmental stress that can weaken their immune systems. As part of my study I will be collecting blood from each of the turtles we find to try and get a feel for the health of not only the individual turtles but also the health of the entire population.

In further posts, I will describe the different places blood is drawn and what cells we look for the in the blood. Above, I am drawing blood from the subcarapacial sinus of this box turtle.

I will also be performing a physical exam on these turtles, looking for signs of disease such as watery eyes or diarrhea. I will also be looking for any external parasites such as ticks and collecting them for further analysis. Lastly, in the field I will be collecting oral swabs for further analyses to be run to determine if these turtles are infected with viruses that can prove to be detrimental to an entire population, such as Ranavirus.

Once in the lab, I will use the blood to determine a White Blood Cell Count, the percentages of different blood cells found in a blood sample (Complete Blood Count), plasma biochemistries (such as Sodium and Potassium), the packed cell volume, and Total solids present in the blood. These values can all be used as an indicator of the health of the turtles.

Stay tuned for more information on my summer research project!