Keeping tabs on box turtles to study local ecology - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Keeping tabs on box turtles to study local ecology

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) - A hike Friday through the Enterprise South nature park in Chattanooga leads local college students on a hunt for native box turtles. UTC associate professor of biology Dr. Thomas Wilson is leading the study of our local ecosystem.

"They're good at dispersing seeds, so they contribute to the plant ecology," explains Wilson. "They're occasionally a food source for larger predators or larger carnivores."

Updating the turtle inventory is the main goal of the expedition.

"Box turtles are declining. They're not declining necessarily in all areas, but not all areas are well-studied," Says Wilson.

That's where he and graduate student Mark Dillard come into play. They started looking for the turtles last summer, attaching electronic transmitters to some of them in order to track and later observe them. The transmitters are attached using a non-toxic adhesive. Wilson says it's the first study of its kind in southeast Tennessee.

At least one of the six turtles tagged so far was found Friday. Locating new ones with the human eye is tricky, so this group brings along a team of wild life detection dogs that have been trained to sniff out the turtles which are small and easily blend into their surroundings. It takes a while, but one canine hits pay dirt and spots one.

"If we can get a large number of turtles telemetered at the same time, statistically it's a better experiment," says Wilson.

For third-year UTC student Becca Sadowitz joining the search party is a chance to find her career path.

"I still don't really know what I want to do with my biology degree. So any experience is good," says Sadowitz.

Because the turtles can live to be 50 years old, they tell us a lot about the world around them and us.

"They really are a good indicator of not just the historical ecology of the landscape, but it's future ecology," adds Wilson.

Dillard says he'd like to have 20 turtles tagged, but this could take some time. Through Friday it's taken since last August to find seven.
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