Girl Scouts Help Scientist Conserve Turtles in U.S.

Holly Fisher
The Summerville Journal Scene (South Carolina)
August 16, 2002
Ten Girl Scouts from around the country converged on South Carolina's
Beidler Forest recently to look for spotted turtles, explore nature and
find out girls can be scientists, too.

For the second year, the Girl Scouts of America and the National Geographic Society teamed up for a leadership institute. Last year's group visited National Geographic in Washington, D.C. This year, the high school juniors and seniors donned backpacks and rubber boots to help in a turtle conservation project.

For the last three years, Jacqueline Litzgus, a doctorate candidate from the University of South Carolina, has been researching spotted turtles and their behavior at Beidler Forest. Last week she had ten helpers as she tracked the turtles with a radio transmitting system, logging their location, weight and habitat.

On Wednesday, Litzgus led the girls through the forest, demonstrating her tracking device. She has attached radio transmitters to 16 turtles—12 females and four males. Each turtle is assigned a kind of "radio station." Litzgus tunes her tracking device to the specific radio frequency, points the antennae and listens for the beeps to grow louder as the turtle gets closer.

Breanne Cisneros of California tried her hand at tracking a male turtle. Cisneros, who wants to be a neurologist, found tracking a turtle is harder than it looks. It's difficult to distinguish the beeps, she said.

The first tracking led the group to a female turtle hiding out under some logs and leaves. The scouts took turns reading the GPS monitor to determine the turtle's exact location, recording its habitat and behavior, and weighing the turtle. Each girl took a turn holding the turtle, examining its underside and feeling its smooth head. They all posed for a photograph holding the black turtle, which is adorned with yellowish spots.

All the information the scouts gathered this week will help the turtles survive dwindling habitats and poachers who sell the turtles around the country and overseas as pets.

Litzgus has a passion for protecting the small creatures. She has spent the last several years observing the spotted turtle not only in Beidler Forest, but in her homeland of Canada as well.

The spotted turtle, which can be found in pockets from Ontario down through the eastern United States into Florida, is a declining species. Litzgus' research of turtles in Ontario and South Carolina will help protect the turtles and keep them from becoming an endangered species.

As Litzgus was studying the turtles in the North, she began wondering how the turtles in the South behaved and how they lived and reproduced.

That led her to the Southeast, where a contact at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources suggested she visit Beidler Forest with its strong spotted turtle population.

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.

Join the National Geographic Society

Join the world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization, and help further our mission to increase and diffuse knowledge of the world and all that is in it. Membership dues are used to fund exploration and educational projects and members also receive 12 annual issues of the Society's official journal, National Geographic. Click here for details of our latest subscription offer: Go>>

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.