Researchers Assess Snapping Turtle Health
MYSTIC — After three years of gathering blood and other samples from snapping turtles, scientists will soon have the money to analyze them.
Researchers from Mystic Aquarium, collaborating with the Tributary Mill Conservancy in Old Lyme, started taking samples from snapping turtles at several locations in the Old Lyme area in 2012. But after testing samples from six initial animals, which yielded little insight given the small sample size, researchers found themselves unable to fund expensive blood testing. And so the samples have sat in wait.
Dr. Tracy Romano, executive vice president of research and zoological operations at Mystic, recently received word that the program will receive funding through the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, starting as soon as this month. Samples from each animal will be given four tests that cost $43 each. With the study’s sample size growing, the figures add up quickly.
The funding will likely come from a federal program called State Wildlife Grants and be in the ballpark of $5,000, according to DEEP Supervising Biologist and Wildlife Action Plan State Coordinator Jenny Dickson, who has long been involved in the research. Dickson said she hopes the work can expand into a larger, statewide project next summer.
Volunteers collect the animals from several sites in Old Lyme, doing health assessments that yield nail clippings and blood samples. They take a photograph of each animal, and, if it has no distinguishing characteristics, leave a small notch on its shell so they can recognize it later.
The health assessments have implications that stretch far beyond the animals themselves. Romano explained that because turtles bioaccumulate, collecting and holding toxins from their environments, their health is a clear indicator of the quality of their environments.
And not only that. « People are eating [snapping turtles], » Romano said. « This could be not a good thing for people. »
According to Tobias Landberg, an assistant professor at Arcadia University who has also been involved in the project, research from studies done elsewhere in the U.S. indicate that only about a third of snapping turtles are safe for all human consumption, with one-third unsafe for pregnant women and one-third unsafe for anyone.
For Landberg, studying health indicators is a way to ensure the turtles’ protection. There is little data about snapping turtle populations, he said, but there is evidence that populations are being depleted given the « staggering » amount of turtles harvested in food markets, especially in Asia. It’s especially important to protect the animals when so little is known, he said.
« I want to protect the snapping turtle, and the way to protect snapping turtles is to get limits on them, strict regulations. The argument to the public that we should protect snapping turtles because they’re an amazing part of our natural resources and natural history — it’s not a super persuasive argument to the average person, » he said. « However, the argument that eating a single snapping turtle could actually affect your health — that argument has sway with the public. So that’s the track that we’re taking in order to protect snapping turtles and educate the public. »
Romano also hopes the studies will result in increased legal protection for the animals.
« There’s been some legislation that has been passed for Connecticut, but we’re trying to gather data to ensure their long-term sustainability, » she said.