Don't go into the long grass!

Kristen holding a young Eastern box turtle  (Terrapene carolina carolina)  too small to carry a tracking transmitter. So unassuming about the challenges she will soon face...

Kristen holding a young Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) too small to carry a tracking transmitter.
So unassuming about the challenges she will soon face...

It was an August morning on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but instead of lounging on the beach with tourists I was gearing up to track down my Eastern box turtle friends. Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) are a beautifully patterned land dwelling turtle. Their populations continue to decline due to habitat loss, collection as pets, and road mortality, and they are globally listed as vulnerable to extinction. My task for the summer was to find turtles in their breeding habitat, glue a radio transmitter to their shells, and use that radio signal to track them to understand what habitat types are most important to protect. I followed turtles around all summer long, and it may surprise you that they do move extensively during their breeding season!

A gorgeously colored male Eastern box turtle. A bright red eye is one characteristic used to tell males from females. Duxbury, MA, summer,  Photo credit: Kristen DeMoranville

A gorgeously colored male Eastern box turtle. A bright red eye is one characteristic used to tell males from females. Duxbury, MA, summer, Photo credit: Kristen DeMoranville

Eastern box turtle carrying a tracking transmitter. Duxbury, MA, summer,  Photo credit: Kristen DeMoranville

Eastern box turtle carrying a tracking transmitter. Duxbury, MA, summer, Photo credit: Kristen DeMoranville

This August morning began like any other day in the field. It was time to track turtle 910, so I turned my dial to that frequency and headed towards its favorite place. This turtle, along with two others, frequented a spot that seemed to be a box turtle oasis. It was a small rocky depression lined and protected by large granite boulders and filled with green shrubs and young trees. It was located at the other side of a field roughly half the size of a soccer field. I stood at the edge of the field, pointed the antenna at the oasis, and picked up the turtle's signal! Great, just as I had expected. I strode confidently through the tall grass reaching up my torso with one thought, turtle 910. Whoa! Some...thing shot its head up through the grass just in front of me and snapped me out of my tunnel vision. I was so disoriented and startled that I couldn't recognize what this beady-eyed creature was. It charged directly at me, and that's when I realized I was being attacked by a wild turkey. "Forget turtle 910!", screamed my internal dialog. I ran as fast as I could in fear of that bill. I didn't look behind me until I was completely clear of the field, and to my delight the turkey had remained in the grass. To the turkey's delight I was no longer in the field heading straight for him. I learned first hand the valuable lesson that Jurassic Park (The Lost World) attempted to instill in me early on. In case some of you also missed it in 1997, I pass that message on to you: Don't go into the long grass (click here for video clip)! Yes, I now see turkeys as bloodthirsty velociraptors. Maybe not such a stretch since all birds are dinosaurs; birds today are reptilian descendants of an older group of dinosaurs, the therapods (I'm not too far off...velociraptors are therapods too!).

A gobbler in strut, or in other words a male turkey in breeding display. Note the dropped wings, vertical and fanned tail, puffed up body feathers, and tucked in neck position.  Photo credit: Mark Cooperman

A gobbler in strut, or in other words a male turkey in breeding display. Note the dropped wings, vertical and fanned tail, puffed up body feathers, and tucked in neck position. Photo credit: Mark Cooperman

 

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Sources and further reading:

Eastern Box turtle information
Eastern box turtle facts
Global IUCN status

Jurassic Park video clip
Don't go into the long grass!

Birds are dinosaurs
birds are dinosaurs


 

About the author:
Kristen J. DeMoranville is a Ph.D. student researching the effects of diet and long-distance flight on a migratory songbird in Dr. Scott McWilliams lab at the University of Rhode Island

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