Turtle Sampling Sessions Held in Texas and Florida

by Heather Lowe 

The North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG) continued its amazing year with two large summer sampling sessions. In July, the group visited Comal Springs, in New Braunfels, Texas for the third time this year. The crew was able to capture and process 442 turtles, representing four species, over the course of three days. This trip was led by NAFTRG alumni Mike Farris and Stephen Ross, as Project Coordinator Eric Munscher had to miss his first trip since taking the lead on the project. The volunteer crew included students and volunteers from Washington State, Florida, and Texas. Graduate students from the University of Houston also volunteered their time and efforts. NAFTRG member Jordan Gray (Houston Zoo) helped out for a day and helped pull in 162 turtles the first day of sampling! This trip put the NAFTRG tallies at more than 1,400 turtles captured at Comal Springs so far this year.

The crew will return to sample Comal once more this year, in November. If current trends continue, they could capture ~1,850 turtles at Comal this year, meaning ~4,000 captures for the project here in just three years. Incredible! The group is currently in the process of writing several peer-reviewed manuscripts about this amazing study site.

The August sampling of our Florida parks kicked off during the 12th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles, which was held in Orlando this year. NAFTRG members Jessy Wayles, Kellie Adkins, Ben Williams, and Andy Williams sampled Manatee and Fanning Springs on August 6 and 7. They captured 94 total turtles during those two days, including several Sternotherus minor, which had not been captured in several years. Conference attendees were invited to join the crew on August 8 in Blue Springs, as part of an official field trip offered by the TSA. Here, fourteen conference attendees assisted the NAFTRG crew. Over the course of two days, the team ended up catching 60 turtles at this small park. Many of the TSA members who went on the field trip had never had the opportunity to snorkel for turtles before and seemed to have a good time.

Sampling moved on to Wekiwa Springs State Park from August 11-15. Here, volunteers from Washington, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Georgia, and New York helped with sampling. This site is where the NAFTRG originated many years ago and has been a special place to many of the long-time members of this group. This final sampling session of 2014 at Wekiwa Springs marked over 15 years of sampling at this park. In March, the park gifted us with 374 total captures, setting a record for the project. This August, the crew was treated again with a very special Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentine) capture. This turtle was big - very big! The turtle measured 448 mm at maximum carapace length and when the team measured it they knew that they had something special. A new record snapping turtle for the state of Florida (UF museum record # 173686)! The turtle captured during this trip is 24 mm over the previous long-standing record. The behemoth weighed just under 50 lbs. In all, the team ended up catching 292 turtles at Wekiwa in four days of sampling bringing the total capture for Florida to 444 turtles for the summer session.

The NAFTRG wrapped up the Florida trip with a presentation (advertised in the Orlando Sentinel) at Wekiwa Springs State Park. In total, more than 100 people (many families) showed up for the hour-long talk about the turtles of Wekiwa Springs. The talk ended up lasting over 1.5 hours and was an amazing success! The guests were extremely interested and had many good questions. Everything went so well that Eric Munscher (Project Coordinator) counts this talk as one of the highlights of his career.

The NAFTRG will wrap up 2014 sampling with one more trip to both Florida and Texas. The team will be sampling Blue, Ichetucknee, and Manatee Springs (Florida) in October. They will also be conducting a site visit to a new park - Weeki Wachee Springs - in hopes of starting turtle population work there in 2015. The last trip of the year will be held at Comal Springs (Texas) in early November. If you are interested in volunteering with the NAFTRG please click here for more information.