UNT Ecology graduate student Sara van der Leek didn't originally plan to work her Master's thesis around the three-toed box turtle; she thought ornithology would be the next stop in her research journey when arriving at the University of North Texas in the fall of 2019. But one day, while volunteering at the LLELA bird banding station, she met local Master Naturalist Scott Kiester, who introduced her to a project that was working to save the disappearing turtle population in North Texas. Sara had found her calling.
The three-toed box turtle, a subspecies of the Eastern box turtle, is identified as vulnerable by the IUCN and classified as a "Species of Greatest Conservation Need" in Texas. This status, coupled with a lack of published information on the ecology of this species in Texas, warrants further study and action to protect the few remaining populations, which is exactly what Sara and her assistants aim to accomplish.
"As soon as I learned about the turtle project I jumped at the chance to help, and now I am the lead investigator!" said Sara, who studied horned lizards for her undergraduate thesis at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas. "Twice a week we spend around five hours tracking and recording the GPS waypoints and data on the microhabitats the turtles are using. We started with nine turtles last fall and are now there are twenty."
"It may sound easy, but we often have a difficult time trying to locate and reach all the turtles," said one volunteer. Each of the twenty three-toed box turtles is equipped with radio-transmitter to help track their location, but some parts of the forested area where the turtles live have very dense briar and poison ivy that hinders the movement of those tracking the turtles. Sometimes the transmitters get chewed up by predators or lost along the way. It's not glamorous work, but judging by the success of the project now two years in, their efforts are not in vain.
Before the box turtle project began, UNT staff and LLELA volunteers were becoming increasingly concerned about the waning population, after noticing the only turtle sightings in the area were of mature animals. The population struggle has been mainly attributed to predation, as volunteers have found many turtle nests that have been dug up by racoons or coyotes.
"These turtles only lay 3-5 eggs in a clutch, and only produce 1-2 clutches a year, so if all their nests are compromised, there are no turtles," said Sara. "If the adult population were to die out that would mean they'd be essentially extinct at LLELA."
While Sara's primary project has been to gather data on the space and habitats required for the turtles to thrive, and a secondary "head start" program is also being implemented to bolster the number of turtles in an effort to overcome predation. Nine juvenile box turtles are scheduled to be reintroduced to the wild on October 3, tripling the original number of three-toed species that are a part of the study.
It is worth noting that Sara's research is being done with a scientific research permit from Texas Parks and Wildlife and approval by the IACUC committee at UNT. "Unless wild box turtles are in immediate danger, or you have proper permitting, they should not be handled and should be observed from afar," said Sara.
Though the COVID crisis at the beginning of 2020 brought many projects to a standstill, Sara's dedication to the turtles meant two months of solo tracking. Now she and her volunteers safely work together following social distancing guidelines. She's quick to mention that the project is a team effort, and has also created an iNaturalist project to engage the community in their turtle spotting efforts.
"I have two awesome Texas Master Naturalists who help me track turtles on a weekly basis, Scott Kiester (who, alongside Ken Steigman, began the project in 2018) and Barbara Beane," said Sara. "I've also been lucky to have some UNT undergraduates come help when they can. Another group of Master Naturalists, our 'turtle moms,' take care of all the captive turtles we are raising for release. They also deserve praise for coming out rain or shine and feeding all of our little guys!"
Sara created a public Facebook group to share updates about the turtles and post volunteer opportunities. Follow LLELA Box Turtle Project for news about the study, and visit LLELA.org to learn more about how to get involved with wildlife conservation efforts in North Texas.