Bell Museum sponsors turtle conference

Emily Dalnodar

Already victim to urban sprawl and commercial exploitation, the Blanding’s Turtle faces an intensified population decline unless scientists find a way to intervene.
A two-day conference Thursday and Friday, which was hosted by the University’s Bell Museum, focused on Blanding’s Turtles.
Leading turtle biologists from the United States and Canada shared theories for the Blanding’s population decline and solutions to save it from extinction.
Roads pose one of the biggest threats to the turtles, said John Moriarty, Bell Museum associate and conference organizer. The hinged-shell turtles with yellow necks walk up to a mile from their ponds to lay eggs, he said.
With more natural terrain giving way to roads, turtles are more prone to encounter such obstacles in their paths. Not known for their speed, turtles often fall prey to passing cars. If they make the trip and lay eggs, their young face the same fate when they travel back to the ponds from the nest.
One of 245 turtle species around the world, Blanding’s Turtles also face entrapments and captivity from pet dealers. Though the pet trade has had little impact on the Blanding’s Turtle population, some fear the turtle’s status in some states as endangered will increase the numbers bought and sold.
“Once they have a value, people will do anything to get them,” said John Levell, who tracks the pet trade business.
When animals hit the endangered or threatened species list, their market value can sky-rocket. Incentive for their capture becomes more lucrative to poachers, and Levell said he worries this will propel the Blanding’s Turtle into the underground trade scene.
“Animals that had little interest before suddenly become hot items,” Levell said.
Minnesota boasts the nation’s largest concentrated Blanding’s Turtles population at Weaver Dunes, Moriarty said. The Nature Conservancy of Minnesota bought the land 20 miles south of Wabasha, Minn., in October to preserve the turtle population.
The dunes are home to a diverse age group of Blanding’s Turtles signifying a healthy population, said Julie Muehlberg, a conservancy spokeswoman. With a life span of about 60 years, the turtles don’t start mating until their teens and will reproduce for the next 30 years.
Unfortunately, most Blanding’s Turtles sighted and tagged are too old to reproduce, said Jeff Lang, a turtle researcher and University alumnus. This knowledge challenges Lang and other scientists to find alternatives to natural reproduction by studying the creatures.
Camp Ripley near Little Falls, Minn., is under the spotlight for Blanding’s Turtle research.
The camp is used for military training, complete with tanks, guns and thousands of National Guardsmen completing their maneuvers. It is also home to a large number of Blanding’s Turtles.
“The turtles are thriving with the military,” Lang said. “There’s enough disturbance to keep the land open, and the turtles like that to nest.”
Research conducted at the camp involves monitoring turtles’ temperatures in hopes of perfecting artificial breeding conditions for the disappearing amphibian.
Eggs kept in cool conditions will produce male turtles, and eggs raised in warm environments will produce females, Lang said. But eggs in cooler atmospheres will also develop at a faster rate.
Scientists and turtle enthusiasts shared similar facts and research results at the conference. And all shared an interest in seeing the turtles’ future without threat.
“I’m not on the side of the DNR. I’m not on the side of the pet trade,” Levell said. “I’m on the side of the damn turtle.”