Dalton State Protects, Breeds Endangered Turtles

Monday, July 28, 2014
Brandy Riekert, a biology major at Dalton State, checks on Gaga, a yellow box turtle in the College’s Turtle Assurance Colony.
Brandy Riekert, a biology major at Dalton State, checks on Gaga, a yellow box turtle in the College’s Turtle Assurance Colony.

Dalton State couple has a new couple, a male and female spiny turtle – known as the Heosemys spinosa in scientific communities - which is an endangered species. They live in the Dalton State College Turtle Assurance Colony. The colony is part of the international Turtle Survival Alliance, which is a conservation group formed in response to the disappearance of turtles in Asia where they are sought for food.

Dalton State is now home to four endangered species of turtles where they are monitored, fed and encouraged to breed. The project began in May and is spearheaded by Chris Manis and Dr. John Lugthart.

The work being done at Dalton State could help ensure the survival of several species.

“We’re dealing with species on the brink of extinction,” Dr. Lugthart said. “It’s really cool to have a part in the project.”

The turtles are harvested at such a high rate in Asian countries, especially China, the species cannot keep up with the demand. Many species of turtles need several years to reach sexual maturity, and the high harvest rates were not giving the species time to reach that point. Some species don’t even mate and lay eggs every year, and they only lay one or two eggs at a time.

 “Anywhere in China, these turtles a decade ago, were numerous,” Mr. Manis said. “You could find them in markets, pet stores. There are about eight to 10 years between field studies. When they went back to conduct field surveys, they couldn’t find these turtles anymore. They were common animals 15 years ago... They’re not sustainable anymore.”

The project is longterm. The turtles won’t be re-released into the wild anytime soon, according to Mr. Manis. “We’re keeping these guys going in captivity then we’ll release them when it’s safe to do so,” he said. “We can’t even reintroduce them yet if we had enough…. None are safe in China. The rarer the turtle, the more they want them.”

Before the turtles can be released into the area, the culture has to change, Mr. Manis said.  But first, the turtles have to be saved.

Setting the mood

Setting a mood and environment to encourage breeding isn’t necessarily easy. Some breeds, such as the yellow-margined box turtle, have been studied more than others. Mating habits of the yellow-margined box turtle are more well known, and they have been bred successfully in captivity more than some of the other species at the College.

The yellow-margined box turtle is similar to box turtles in this area, but they prefer a more aquatic area. They have done well in captivity over the last several years, Manis said. He expects them to do well at the College.

The turtles reach sexual maturity based on size. For males, it’s usually around 6 years old, and for females, around 8 years old. All the yellow-margined box turtles at the College are less than 2 years old, but Manis hopes with regular feedings and a good diet, they’ll reach sexual maturity faster than if they were in the wild.

Breeding the box turtles should be relatively easy, Manis said.

“We’re trying to figure out the others,” he said.

Part of the challenge with the spiny turtles isn’t just finding out how to encourage mating, but helping the egg survive so that it can hatch. They don’t have a great success rate breeding in captivity, but right now, that’s the species’ only chance of survival.

Each day Manis, Lugthart and student assistant Brandy Riekert take turns checking on the turtles, feeding them, cleaning out their habitats, and encouraging mating.

“They’re notoriously difficult to breed in captivity,” said Riekert, a biology student at the college who is expected to graduate in the spring. “We spray water on them to encourage mating.”

Less is understood about the spiny turtles and their habits. Breeding is prompted by the change in the season. The spiny turtles prefer a temperate and cooler climate, Manis said. They also breed in a rainier season. So breeding is encouraged by mimicking that seasonal change, hence the showers.

Once mating has been successful, the next challenge is getting an egg to survive during the incubation period – more than 100 days, Manis said.

One egg had been laid, but it didn’t develop properly and died, he said. There is one incubating currently, and he said so far, it is developing properly.

The Beal’s-eyed turtle, which Manis also has in the lab, is unlike many other species because it prefers to lay its eggs when the temperature is still cooler out. Many species lay eggs when it’s warmer.

The Tennessee Aquarium, in Chattanooga, Tenn., has had success breeding the Beal’s eyed, Manis said, and one of the turtles from the aquarium’s colony is on “breeding loan” to the college.

There is some question as to whether the sex of the turtle is determined by chromosomes or by temperature. With some species males are produced when the eggs are kept at a cooler temperature and females at a warmer temperature. Manis is hoping to have the answer to that question as the research in the colony continues.

Lugthart believes housing the colony on campus will give students and faculty numerous opportunities for research.

“There’s a lot of longterm potential,” he said. “We can involve students and faculty, and there’s potential for more than just caring for and breeding the turtles. It’s generating a lot of enthusiasm among students and faculty. They’re charismatic.” 

Emerging personalities

One of the female box turtles perches high on her log, looking at everything around her. She bobs her head up and down and turns to the side to get a better look at everyone who walks by.

So those working in the lab affectionately call her “Gaga” – named for diva pop star Lady Gaga.

“Gaga always loves the spotlight,” Riekert said. “She’s a proud one. It’s so funny how they’re so different. One is shy. I really never gave it a whole lot of thought. I’m so surprised they have unique personalities.”

Lugthart, who calls himself a “spineless guy” for his interest in invertebrate biology, said he didn’t realize the turtles would have distinct personalities either.

“I’ve never reared turtles before,” he said. “It’s been fun to get to know more about them. I do what I can to facilitate this project. Caring for an animal is different from my experience.”

Riekert said she’s glad she is able to work in the lab.

“It has been an education experience,” she said. “I’m proud of it. When I started, it was ‘I’m going to work in the lab.’ Now it’s ‘my lab.’ I’ve taken a lot of personal ownership.” 

The birth of the colony

Manis has worked with turtles for many years. So it was natural for him to move toward an assurance colony.

Manis and Lugthart also work together on the Lakeshore Park lake and wetland project in Dalton. The team spends two weeks each summer capturing turtles, collecting data, and releasing them back into the habitat. The project is designed to eventually restore the lake and wetland to its natural state. Learning about the turtles will help further that effort.

“I have an extreme passion for these animals,” Manis said. “My obsession hooked Dr. Lugthart.”

The project at Lakeshore is about researching what is already there and preserving it. The colony at the College is about species conservation.

But the Lakeshore project fueled interest in the conservation project. Manis said most conservation efforts worldwide go through the Alliance so that’s where he turned. The Tennessee Aquarium, where Manis served an internship is also a member of the Alliance and has been a resource for Manis as he begins the colony in Dalton.

Manis began collecting turtles, choosing which species to breed, researching them and setting up the lab with the help of Lugthart and Riekert just as the new Peeples Hall opened on Dalton State’s campus.

“It’s worked out well with the new building and the new labs, being able to jump right in,” Lugthart said. 

Chris Manis holds one of Dalton State’s spiny turtles in the College’s Turtle Assurance Colony.
Chris Manis holds one of Dalton State’s spiny turtles in the College’s Turtle Assurance Colony.
- Photo2 by Mary Watson Wheeler

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