Box Turtle Smiling Oglala Lakota College
D. Snethen
The turtles in the Box Turtle Project are treated well and receive treats such as grasshoppers for their participation.

Chasing Turtles (Very Slowly) For Science and Fun

Christina Rose

At Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota, students are on a fast track thanks to the Ornate Box Turtle Project. With access to field work often reserved for master’s level programs, Allesandra Higa, professor of Conservation Biology at OLC, said, “This project has really improved higher education for our students.” It will also improve the lives of the turtles.

The project is led by Higa in collaboration with consultants Dr. Hugh and Holly Quinn, local experts on the habits, habitats, and ecology of reptiles and amphibians in South Dakota.

Professor Allesandra Higa teaches Conservation Biology at Oglala Lakota College. (H. Quinn)

The turtles were located by turtle-sniffing dogs. “Every time we find a turtle, we mark it on a map and we can see all the places he’s been in a year or two,” explained student Camille Griffith, who has been tracking the turtles since 2012. “Some only travel [65.5 feet] in a year and others have gone a mile. They come back to the same spots over and over again, which is really important to know for conservation. Say you are putting a road right through their area, that’s not going to stop them from going to the spot.”

The students have come to know some of the turtles well. “There is one we call Stumpy because he has three and a half legs. He makes his way around just as well as the others,” Griffith said.

Students attach tiny transmitters to the turtles, which send a radio signal to a receiver in order to track the turtles. The turtles are tracked every three days from March to October, and the students have amassed more than 1,000 locations for them. For the most part, the turtles spend their days eating, traveling from one area to another, and reproducing. But if there are other activities the turtles are engaged in, this research may reveal it, Griffith said.

Wendy Green, Allesandra Higa, and Osceola Bluehorse gather data from turtles found on the Pine Ridge Reservation. (H. Quinn)

The transmitters stay attached to the turtles for a year, even as they burrow to hibernate, travel through vegetation, and reproduce.

Through the box turtles, Tada Vargas, Lakota, a junior at OLC, learned how to do DNA extraction, amplify fragments of DNA, and boost sequencing through OLC’s collaboration with Black Hills State University. She is now furthering her work in genetics through a bison project and believes she will continue in the field of genetics after she graduates.

The idea for the program began in 2009, when Higa, who is from Brazil, was teaching a field ecology class with Dr. Hugh Quinn at an OLC Summer Course. When a student arrived holding a box turtle, Higa asked him where he found it. “He said, ‘Crossing the road.’ The next day another student found another turtle and brought it to us and this happened for three consecutive days,” she said.

Students at Oglala Lakota College gather in the field to study the ornate box turtles. (H. Quinn)

Higa and the students did a search in the South Dakota Heritage database which tracks wildlife in the state. They found only 19 historical records of box turtles in South Dakota, and the records were decades old. Griffith said, “They didn’t know how many there were, but they knew there was a lot of threats.”

People pose a threat to the turtles through illegal international trade for turtle meat and keeping the turtles as pets. “Unlike other types of turtles, the box turtles don’t survive well as pets,” Griffith said. Coyotes and raccoons, which will eat juvenile turtles, also pose a threat.

Flyers about the turtles are posted around the Pine Ridge Reservation—where OLC is located—and even children have been able to learn about them in the field. “Now if people see a turtle in the road, they will stop to help them cross the road,” Griffith said.

Jayla Griffith, niece of Camille Griffith, holds a flyer about protecting the box turtle that was posted throughout several areas of the reservation. (C. Griffith)

Higa said the project has been as good for the students as it has been for the turtles. “We knew the turtles could be here but we didn’t know where. We didn’t know how many, or if the population is stable or declining. This is why there is a state of concern, because of the lack of information. With our study we can do a deeper analysis to see if the species is in danger or in any stress.”

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