Faces of the TSA Vol. 2: John Iverson

Who: Dr. John Iverson

What: Biology Research Professor

Where: Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, United States

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

John Iverson: As a child, I was drawn to the pet section of every department store I visited where red-eared sliders were always overstocked. I owned a number of them (along with their clear plastic bowls with green plastic palm tree), but could not succeed in keeping them alive on the recommended diet of dried ant eggs. Hence, I graduated to a large outdoor enclosure where I could keep native Nebraska turtles.

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

JI: It would have to be the underappreciated yellow mud turtle. I have been studying a large population in western Nebraska for 36 years and I am still recapturing females that were old smooth adults in the first year of the study! They may be small and odorous, but their life history differs in many details from any other turtle (aquatic but overwinter on land, females nest under the ground, hatchlings must dig down a meter to survive the winter, produce both sexes at low incubation temperatures, etc.).

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

JI: My first serious turtles research began in graduate school at the University of Florida in the early 1970s under the mentorship of Archie Carr and Walter Auffenberg. At that time Conservation Biology was only just emerging as a recognized field, and the tenuous future of many organisms and populations was becoming evident. In 1980 when I chose my Nebraska field site, I explicitly wanted a minimally disturbed field site that would still be around in 20 years. That was a long time horizon at that time, as the field sites of my colleagues were already being severely negatively impacted. I wanted a site that was as pristine as possible. My Nebraska site still remains virtually identical to what it was in 1980, and except for the replacement of bison with cows, is essentially the way it was hundreds of years ago. I know of no other field site so minimally impacted by humans.

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

JI: South of our main Nebraska field site, we study softshell turtles in an artesian spring-fed stream. Many of the small springs emerge along the stream bed as bubbling cauldrons of quick sand. Imagine walking along in a shallow sandy stream on a 100-degree day and suddenly dropping chest deep into a sand boil emitting 55 degree water. Frightening at first, but welcoming in the summer heat.

JG: If you weren’t a Professor of Biology, what would you want to be?

JI: Perhaps a Forester, since I have planted nearly over 50 thousand trees on our property, completely reforesting a 40-acre cornfield, among other areas. I continue to plant 300-500 trees a year. I get a great sense of satisfaction with each tree planted, even though I will never rest in their shade.

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

JI: Work locally to protect turtle habitats where you live, and act globally, contributing your time, energy, and money to the cause of turtle conservation around the world (visit the TSA web site for opportunities). Finally, pursue an advanced degree in your area of interest and expertise (whether wildlife biology, veterinary medicine, business, law, or whatever) and use that strength to work on behalf of turtle conservation. Everyone has a part to play.

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

JI: I have been involved with this effort since before TSA was even conceived. I attended the workshop in 2001 at the Fort Worth Zoo that led to the creation of the TSA. Originally focused only on the captive management of turtles (not my specialty), the organization has grown to also include field conservation and habitat protection (my arenas). All of these endeavors will be necessary if we have any hope of preventing turtle extinctions.