WVU researchers come out of their tank to help endangered turtles | WVU today

Wood turtles, or Glyptemys insculpta, are North America’s only semi-aquatic primary terrestrial species. Donald Brown, research assistant professor at WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is leading a study examining how oil and natural gas activities affect forest turtles.
(WVU Photo/Donald Brown)

How oil and natural gas activity is affecting most animal species is still unknown, but a West Virginia University researcher is working to change these one turtle at a time.

Donald Brown, Assistant Research Professor of Wildlife Resources at Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, examines North America’s only semi-aquatic primary terrestrial species and how they are affected by oil and natural gas activities.

The wood turtle, Glyptemys insculpta, is a stream-obligatory species – it winters in streams and uses them year-round. Unlike most aquatic turtles, wood turtles are mostly terrestrial during the summer months and can stray several kilometers from streams. The turtles are also candidates for state listing under the Endangered Species Act, which is currently under review by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

A two-year fellowship from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Brown, along with Ph.D. Student Sara Crayton will conduct research in the Allegheny National Forest to understand how wood turtles respond to widespread forest fragmentation for energy production and transport.

Research results will help inform best management practices throughout the turtle’s range, which includes West Virginia, the northeastern United States and parts of Canada.

“Generally, with this type of research, we assume there will be negative impacts and we try to quantify those impacts,” Brown said. “But wood turtles are an edge-associated species. They tend to take advantage of the edges of forests and vents, so oil and gas exploration could benefit the species.”

However, the changes in landscapes from oil and gas development that could benefit turtles could also benefit their predators.

“When forests are cleared, it tends to bring in more mesopredators like raccoons and skunks,” Brown said. “They will use these openings that are created as travel corridors and they might encounter wood turtles, which could result in a higher mortality rate for the turtles.”

To monitor this, he will use camera traps in the Allegheny National Forest to understand how mesopredator density associated with wood turtles varies with fragmentation. While studying populations at different levels of fragmentation, he also radio-tracks forest turtles to see how individuals respond to the changing landscape.

Much like a turtle shell, Brown’s research is multifaceted.

His graduate students in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Jena Staggs, Ally Beard and Joel Mota, are conducting additional research at WVU’s Wildlife Conservation Lab to more accurately predict the occurrence of local forest turtles. They will study how habitat characteristics affect the abundance of wood turtles in the Midwest while standardizing population monitoring protocols used by state agencies.

Since 2016, Brown has assisted the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources with long-term monitoring of forest turtles in the state to keep track of populations over time. However, the method of surveillance used in West Virginia differs from the methods used in some other areas of the country.

His research will compare the fundamental aspects of each method to develop a single protocol that can be used from Minnesota to Maine. In addition to Brown’s team, researchers from eight states are contributing data to the project.

“I think it’s important for people to understand how depletion of natural resources affects the natural world,” he said. “We’re trying to better understand what happens when we go in and fragment a forest for energy.”



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