Girl Scouts Help Scientist Conserve Turtles in U.S.

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Litzgus did surveys at the forest and then found USC, where she could continue her studies. Litzgus received funding from National Geographic, Santee Cooper, and the Chelonian Research Foundation to get her project started.

She is in her third year of the Beidler Forest study and this is her last season. By February or March, the batteries in the turtles' transmitters will end and so will the study.

Her hours of observations and the dozens of trips she has made into the forest have resulted in some interesting finds. Litzgus' focus is the geographic variations in the life history of the spotted turtle. She is relying on her own research in Ontario and South Carolina as well as results of an extensive study of the turtles in Pennsylvania.

Among her discoveries, Litzgus found turtles in the North hibernate longer—about seven months—whereas turtles in the South hibernate only about one month because the winter is so much shorter.

Northern turtles also have a larger body—or shell—size. Litzgus attributes that to two possibilities: one, they have more fat stored up for hibernating and, two, the females carry more eggs at a time.

Northern female spotted turtles have really only one chance to lay eggs, Litzgus explained. So they lay five to seven eggs at a time. In the South, turtles lay eggs twice and even three times, so they lay only three or four eggs at a time.

Despite those differences, the females end up laying, on average, the same number of eggs each year, Litzgus explained. She has just published a paper on that new discovery.

Each of these findings gives Litzgus new information about the life history of turtles and will help her recommend ways to conserve the species. For starters, she wants to eliminate the pet trade. So many spotted turtles are taken from the wild and sold as pets.

Litzgus also works to educate people about the importance of leaving wild animals in their habitat and not picking them up and taking them home. That's one reason why she works with groups like the Girl Scouts.

The scouts applied for the program and each Girl Scout council could recommend only one girl. The participants were selected for their interest in science and their leadership skills, explained Chelsea Zillmer, who works with educational programming for National Geographic and was the project manager for this leadership institute.

She praised the scouts for the desire they have for science and ecology. She also noted the importance of them working with a woman scientist. "It shows them women can do anything," Zillmer said. "We want them to feel empowered, in science especially."

Reprinted with permission from The Summerville Journal Scene.

The program focused on an extensive research project at Beidler Forest that is the work of Jacqueline Litzgus, Ph.D. candidate from the University of South Carolina.

Litzgus has been conducting research for the past three years on the Spotted Turtle populations at Beidler Forest. She is the recipient of a National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration Grant to study the reptiles.

Originally from Canada, Litzgus is comparing the southern populations of this endangered turtle species to those found in her home country. By tracking the turtles through the use of radio transmitters, Litzgus has gleaned much about the life and habits of this remarkable and secretive species.

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