Spotted Turtle Days 2018: Involving Orianne Society Members in Conservation Research


Finding ways to involve Orianne Society members in research has always been a difficult assignment. There are real issues related to disclosing survey site locations for rare herpetofauna to large groups of people, not to mention the logistical challenges associated with having large groups of people in the field at the same time. This year we decided to try something new – smaller events focused around a single project where having a few volunteers in the field for a couple of days would benefit the research project and allow members to gain hands-on experience doing what we do on a daily basis.As anyone who has followed the Longleaf Savannas Initiative this year knows, we have been doing lots of Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) research. Projects range from continuing our long-term mark-recapture surveys to better understand population dynamics in Georgia, to surveying in Georgia and Florida for this poorly known species, to learning more about female reproductive output by following female turtles around all spring. With all of this work going on at the same time, these projects seemed perfect to invite a small group of Orianne Society members to volunteer in the field.

Processing Spotted Turtles. Photo by Houston Chandler


Thus, our first ‘Spotted Turtle Days’ event took place in late March 2018. Six volunteers joined myself, Research Assistant Ben Stegenga, Spotted Turtle Technician Zach Cava, and Field Technician Jonathan Bolton for two days of slogging through the swamp looking for one of Georgia’s least observed turtle species. Zach Cava provides an account of Day 1:

On Day 1 of Spotted Turtle Days, Orianne Society members and staff met at one of the organization’s long-term Spotted Turtle study sites. TOS has been monitoring turtles at this location for several years, and this year many of the female turtles have been fitted with radio transmitters that allow us to track their movements. Some members who had never used radio-telemetry before were able to get some firsthand training and experience – and we were all reminded that just because you can track a turtle doesn’t necessarily mean you can get to it! Other members helped check traps and conduct visual encounter surveys with the goal of locating new turtles and recapturing previously-marked individuals. Although turtles were the headliners, many of us also enjoyed watching a male Pileated Woodpecker fervently excavate a nest cavity in a snag.

Later in the day, we visited a second site nearby. This area was not one of our long-term study sites, but we planned to conduct “rapid assessment” surveys there in the near future. With the aid of TOS members, this visit served as a reconnaissance mission of sorts. We all split off into small groups and began to wander. Although we didn’t end up finding any Spotted Turtles there that day, we had a great time exploring this less-familiar territory (and did catch turtles at this site on our return visit to officially survey). Overall, the first day of Spotted Turtle Days was a very productive event. I really enjoyed seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and spending quality time in some beautiful and unique places.

The first day of the event was clearly a success – everyone had seen a turtle, helped us collect data on captured turtles, and gotten covered in mud. The day ended with a well-deserved big meal after a long field day. David Hutto described his experience as “incredible” and said that “these turtles, along with many other species, need our help and it is a blessing to have organizations like Orianne actively working to support and conserve them and the habitats they require.” There was more to come on Day 2. Ben Stegenga gives us a look:

The Spotted Turtle research team.
The Spotted Turtle research team.


On day two, we met up with all of our volunteers at our long-term monitoring site to check traps. There was a chance of rain that afternoon, so we wanted to get an early start. Once again David helped me with telemetry in hopes of catching and weighing the turtles that were tucked too far under banks and root masses to catch the day before. The rest of the group began checking traps and wading the shallow water planning to catch turtles by hand. We were not disappointed as we caught 8 turtles in the first series of traps, all of which were turtles that we had previously marked. As we waded between trap locations Kelly Hunt slowly scanned the water with binoculars and noticed two more Spotted Turtles in the shallows. One was a female, already fitted with a transmitter that had been tracked on Saturday, but the second was an unmarked juvenile that we had never caught before! The juvenile, who Kelly dubbed “Small Fry” after plucking him from the submerged leaf litter, was then measured, weighed, and marked before being released. In the meantime, David and I successfully tracked, captured, and weighed the remaining transmittered females. They had left their refugia and were out foraging, making for easy captures.

As the group moved on to the last two series of traps, Houston and David stayed behind to wade for more turtles. Both groups were successful. Bronc Rice and Kelly got a juvenile Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentine) and a Striped Mud Turtle (Kinosternon baurii) in a trap, the latter being the first of that species documented at the site. Rob Richie also pulled a trap with an untransmittered female Spotted Turtle. We brought the female back to the trucks to be processed and given a transmitter. When we returned, Houston revealed a pair of Spotted Turtles he found courting in the shallows of the swamp. By this time the air was turning chilly, and the group hurried to record data and attach transmitters to the two females before the rain arrived. With raindrops beginning to patter on our jackets and thunder in the distance, we decided to wrap up the day, content with the weekend’s outcome.

Over two days, we managed to locate all of our transmittered female turtles, capture over 20 Spotted Turtles (including 3 turtles new to the study), and scout a site that we would survey later in the year. Orianne Society members were able to learn how we radio track and survey for Spotted Turtles while assisting us with data collection. Kelly Hunt sums up the experience well: “Searching for and trapping Spotted Turtles was a welcomed change from my normal desert scenery! The highlight for me was spotting a new juvenile turtle with my binoculars, and wading into the ditch to catch him! I always value the experience I get while volunteering with the Orianne Society.”