Here it is, our twelfth and final blogpost, buckle up folks we’re going on a feels trip. If you have not read between the lines of our many previous posts, we have had an incredible summer. All the adventures we had, the challenges we overcame, and the friendships forged could not have been possible without one incredible species. Emydoidea blandingii, a beautiful little yellow-necked turtle that means so much to so many people. Before we began this summer a lot of previous students who had worked with the Blanding’s turtles told us things like “these turtles will change your life” and “you’re about to have the best summer ever”. We didn’t know how right they were.
So why are Blanding’s so special? We all know reason #1, they are adorable. They have a lot of charisma in their yellow smiles and their unique personalities. Just like any species, there is so much to be learned from them and about them. They have been the focus of much research due to the fact that they are capable of reproduction in their upper 80s. Their longevity, their survival strategies, and so much more of their natural history would be left undiscovered if they were no longer around. The history of the Blanding’s turtle stretches back millions of years. They are a living relic that was around during the Pleistocene extinction, and survived it. Their history is part of the shared history of life and their story isn’t over yet.
We learned a lot about how important conservation medicine and research is. It is more than the individual animal, it is about an entire species, and the precious chapter of Earth that is coded into their DNA. When you get comments like “but they’re just turtles” it can feel a little demoralizing. Sometimes public opinion chooses to focus on the “mainstream animals” and the “flagship species”, or it simply doesn’t care about the environment at all. It can make you feel like you’re fighting a losing battle and you’re doing it alone. This summer taught us how false that is. We may have left Kane County, but the wonderful team that works there will continue to do right by the species. Knowing that there are people out there that are so devoted to their mission is inspiring and we can rest easy knowing E. blandingii is in the most capable hands.
So what is the circle of turtle? It is a philosophy that Alexis and Michelle came up with on one of their many car ride conversations. We had the privilege to be part of the first headstart program here in Kane County and pioneer some of the first sample collections in this area. The “circle of turtle” is a pay it forward idea. It is about laying the groundwork for researchers who will come after you and it is about contributing to the turtle populations that will come after all of us. We spent just a few months in Kane county, but everything we did is part of something much bigger than ourselves. Everyone that helped check nesting females, mist the eggs, manage the incubators, and release hatchlings into the wild are part of this larger effort to help a species that is so worth saving. The circle of turtle is not just about the life cycle of E. blandingii; it is about the good will and fellowship that true conservation requires.
It isn’t easy to study non-traditional species when so little is known about them, but just because it isn’t easy does not mean it is not worth doing. There are many other areas that have had programs in place to restore Blanding’s populations for much longer than Kane county, and other places that are far behind in terms of what they are doing to help this endangered species. No matter where you are in the circle of turtle, it is still a circle that always has a next step. Some of this years hatchlings and headstarts may survive to adulthood and live for decades, continuing to reproduce and make more turtles. We think the ultimate goal of those involved in conservation is to no longer be needed. We have taken on a job that we hope we do well enough that one day it no longer exists.
We want to end with some comments from the awesome people who made this summer possible. We asked our Kane County team what Blanding’s turtles mean to them, and these were their responses:
“Blanding’s turtles mean a lot of things to me. Strangely enough, even though they are endangered, working with them gives me hope about conserving species in changing landscapes. There are so many people from different agencies (state to counties) and disciplines (like veterinarians) working to brighten the future of Blanding’s turtles through research, management and engaging the public in caring too. It’s fun to play a small role in that and work with other people who are passionate about conservation.” -Bill, our fearless leader
“To me, other than being the cutest turtles out there, Blanding’s Turtles represent the resilience of nature. They have persisted through years of habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation and have endured human induced increases in mortality rates stemming from the creation of roads and subsidized predators, which is simply amazing to me. Blanding’s Turtles are a sign of hope that with some positive human intervention, we can turn things around for them and for other species to ensure they are present for generations to come.” -Taylor, our resident birder and handcap king
“Blanding’s turtles to me brought a great group of people together that not only got to help the conservation of cute turtles, but also got to make funny jokes and create awesome memories!” -Katie, our Blanding’s bowl champion
“Blanding’s turtles mean the world to me! Well that may be a little too dramatic a statement, but they’ve given me so much hope. Hope not only for a career in wildlife conservation, but hope for our wildlife as a whole. It may seem at times like an uphill battle to keep an endangered species’ population from falling, but every day I feel lucky to join a team of passionate people who make the endeavor fun. Currently, we have dozens of cute lil baby turt hatchlings in our lab, and watching them emerge from their eggs never ceases to brighten my day. Each is a small victory—a bit of hope that these ever-smiling turtles will recover.” -Jess, our most elusive member (due to circumstances out of her control we only got to actually work with her for ~2 weeks)
“Blanding’s turtles are a symbol of conservation. They represent a once vast landscape that exists now only in pockets. They are an Endangered species that requires cross county and state cooperation to restablish themselves. They are Reptiles, one of the most hardiest and ancient classes of animals on earth. All sorts of people come together to study their Natural history, survival, movement, and health. They also caused me to develop an affinity for gas station taquitos.” -Joey, our headstart baby wrangler