Faces of the TSA Vol.10

by Jordan Gray 

Alligator Snapping Turtles Texas

Who: Carl J. Franklin

What: Herpetologist, Biological Curator and Collections Manager at the Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center, University of Texas-Arlington

Where: Arlington, Texas, USA

Jordan Gray: What is your earliest childhood memory with a turtle or tortoise?

Carl Franklin:
 It's a coin toss from when I was 3. My dad brought a snapping turtle home and then a box turtle or vice versa. I'd look at and play with them for a day then they were released. Back then box turtles were commonplace and while in the car I'd often sit starring over the edge of the backseat scanning the road for turtles. Waking up in the morning to a box turtle on the front porch was also super cool.

JG: What is your favorite species of turtle or tortoise to work with?

CF: I haven't figured that one out yet! The fun part is the consistent trend of learning something new about their ecology and natural history. Here in Texas we have a rich turtle diversity rivaled somewhat by a paucity of information and knowledge about their ecology and natural history. Studying species that are common as well as benthic behemoths residing in urban bayous is an exciting privilege for me. I feel lucky to be a 21st century man revealing caveats about animals that harken to the Triassic

JG: How did you first become involved in turtle and tortoise research and conservation?

CF: By working in a museum collection and salvaging road kills and specimens from zoos for science.

JG: What is the most amusing situation you have found yourself in, in the field?

CF: The first time I was looking for Mexican Mole Lizards (Bipes biporus) in Baja California I was with my wife. I pulled up to a couple of cowboys on horseback and asked where I might find some (after showing them an image in a field guide). Their faces twisted in disgust, they looked at my license plate, and one said, "You drove all the way from Texas just to shove something up your ass?". When he heard my wife laugh he looked into the car, removed his hat, and said "My god! You're Mexican, you should know better!". We left, and miles later stopped on the outskirts of the next town to inquire about these reptiles with a young man walking along the road. His eyes got as big as saucers and while backing away from me he said, "Mister, we're good people here, we're not into that sorta thing. My uncle called me and warned me you were coming this way!". For those who don't know, mole lizards are subject to a mythos that they will enter one's body in a most unspeakable manner should someone sit on the ground naked or carelessly answer a call of nature!

For non-field herpetological humor, I wound up being part of one of the earliest viral videos. The clip made all the talk show and blooper circuits and was even played on a TV in the background of a movie scene. While promoting a reptile event on live television a Leaf-Tailed Gecko leapt onto the news anchor's suit. He screamed, dropped the F-bomb, cursed, and fell over all on live television! Not to worry, the lizard wasn't hurt and the video has been going around the internet for 15 years now. It's on YouTube under "news anchor gecko attack".

Once, in the Peruvian Amazon, I visited a local tribe and was chatting with the chief. I asked if he had turtles and his answer was affirmative. I asked if I could have them and he laughed. So then I asked if he'd seen images of the beautiful women with colorfully painted lips and eyes. I told him I would trade the cosmetics for the turtles. The chief shifted his gaze to some of the women who clearly bore the appearance of living close to the elements in the forest (but were still not without their own charm), then turned to me and said "Yes!". Bartering was the method of procurement among the indigenous people and fortunately a friend had brought a big bag of Avon makeup samples. I offered that as trade and he muttered something to a young boy in his native dialect. Soon, children came running to present me with several Six-tubercled River Turtles (Podocnemis sextuberculata) and Yellow-footed Tortoises (Chelonoidis denticulata) tethered to strings. I handed over the bag of cosmetics and later, of course, released all the turtles.

One more field story! On another occasion with the same tribe in the Peruvian Amazon, I captured a 14' (4 m) Anaconda (Eunectes murinus). Word spread to the tribe, and a few days later some boys arrived asking if I was scared of Anacondas. "No" was my reply. "Well then can you teach us how to hold this one?", asked one of the lads. I opened the bucket and noticed the "Anaconda" was actually a 4-5' (1.5 m) Electric Eel (Electrophorus electricus)! We had a good laugh about that one.

JG: If you weren't a professional herpetologist, what would you want to be?

CF: Professional wrestling or rock n' roller! Rodeo clown was another one.

JG: What advice would you give to an aspiring chelonian conservationist?

CF: Ignore anyone who tells you that you "cannot make a living doing that" and/or marry a wealthy spouse. Also get involved. Join your local herpetological society, volunteer at a museum or even a zoo, join the TSA, and stay obsessed with turtles. Someone (Peter Pritchard) once told me that having an obsession is the true path to happiness because every moment spent pursuing that obsession will keep you happy.

JG: What attracted you to become part of the Turtle Survival Alliance?

SC: It stopped Rick Hudson from calling me and telling me to join! Nine years have passed, and the phone stopped ringing, but I still get the privilege of being around all of you, and connected to lots of other turtle work that would have been an uphill challenge to even know about. It's sorta like walking towards a mirage in a hot, foreboding desert; I think I'll soon satiate my thirst. Instead, the longer I go, the thirstier for turtles I get!