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2012 News Releases

Student/faculty research team explores reasons for turtle's race to extinction

June 13, 2012

Lassiter examines the endangered wood turtle in George Washington National Forest.
Lassiter examines the endangered wood turtle in George Washington National Forest.

One of nature's slowest moving creatures is quickly declining in population and a student/faculty research team from Longwood University is working to find out why.

Dr. Tom Akre, associate professor of biology, and three senior biology students are spending part of the summer tracking the movements and reproduction habits of the endangered wood turtle.

Working deep in the George Washington National Forest near the border of Virginia and West Virginia, the group tracks the movements of wood turtles through radio-frequency tags attached to the turtles' shells. They spend most of the day and sometimes late into the night in the woods tracking the turtles and strategically placing remote cameras to capture predators' attacks on nests.

The group is in the third year of a five-year study to examine the nesting habits of the turtle. Working with Akre are senior biology students Elliot Lassiter from Locust Grove, Bryan Johnson from Fredericksburg and Alan Nowlin from Richmond. This is Lassiter's second summer working on the project. In 2011, the group found 33 turtle nests.

Endangered wood turtle

Endangered wood turtle

"This year we are looking at the influence of predators on turtle nests," said Akre, whose article "Troubled Times for Turtles" was published in the spring 2012 issue of The Piedmont Virginian.

"Some of the reasons that wood turtles are disappearing include that the nests don't survive, the adult turtles are getting hit [by cars], and the hatchlings are being eaten by predators such as raccoons or skunks," said Akre.

The research group is also focusing on nest patch selection, which is another significant problem impacting the population of wood turtles. As lower elevation sites with sandy beaches disappear due to development, the remaining populations at higher elevations within the George Washington National Forest nest on road cut banks, which may not be the best for recruitment.

"The goals of our research study are to find out where wood turtles are nesting in the George Washington National Forest and to find out where wood turtles can still be found in northern Virginia," said Akre. "We also want to educate landowners about how they can safeguard their habitats in order to protect and preserve the wood turtle in Virginia."