History of Miner Monarchs

IMG_1481

Suzie Ronk with tagged Monarch.

The History of Miner Monarchs

Miner Monarchs began when Emma and I were in 5thgrade. I found an article in the New York Times explaining about the monarch’s decline in population. I sent Emma a link to the article, and we agreed we needed to do something. My father, who is on the Friends of Goosepond board, spoke to the Friends, and they kindly agreed to let us share their booth at Marsh Madness. We sold rubber-band bracelets, cupcakes, and coloring sheets. We raised $300, and we decided to use our profits to build a butterfly garden at the new Goosepond visitor’s center.

When Emma and I entered sixth grade, we decided we wanted our club to be more than just she and I, so we approached our science teacher, Cara Graves, about sponsoring a club for the middle school. She said she would help us, and Miner Monarchs was officially born.

Before the next Marsh Madness, we were invited to speak at the Marsh Madness banquet, and to sell something at the silent auction. My father and I, with some help from a few other people, made a bench after Aldo Leopold’s design, who, in my opinion, is the greatest conservationist of our time. The bench sold for around $500, and the next day at Marsh Madness, we raised about $300 selling duct tape items, scarves, hair bows, and brownies.

A bit after Marsh Madness, we were invited to have a booth at the Indianapolis Earth Day Festival, because the theme was monarch butterflies. We went there, and helped to spread the word about monarchs, and their troubles.

Emma and I were invited to speak at the Indiana Wildlife Federation, but since Emma was on vacation, I went, and gave a speech about what Miner Monarchs goals were. I was surprised that, while I was there, Emma and I had earned Wildlife Conservationists of the Year Award.

Miner Monarchs will return to Marsh Madness this year, and hopefully we teach more people about these amazing creatures, and why we need to protect them.  See you there!!

Suzie Ronk

INDIANA YOUNG BIRDERS CLUB TRIP

 SPECIAL TRIP FOR YOUNG BIRDERS AT THE FRIENDS OF GOOSE POND MARSH MADNESS SANDHILL CRANE FESTIVAL, SATURDAY MARCH 5 2016.
TRIP LED INDIANA YOUNG BIRDERS CLUB OF INDIANA AUDUBON SOCIETY

Temp Bird 2Temp Bird


For details go to the IYBC web site:

http://www.indianaaudubon.org/…/m…/EventDetails/Default.aspx

The trip starts at 8:30 AM. Young birders must be accompanied by a parent or guardian, as per the web announcement. Preregistration not necessary. In addition to the seasonal cranes birders at GPFWA yesterday (Saturday February 27 2016) saw over 140 AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS, over 7,000 SNOW GEESE in Main Pool West, and two different parties saw the first LESSER YELLOWLEGS of the season (3 birds total). It’s time to start thinking early shorebirds like snipe and maybe Yellowlegs. The big Snow Goose show should hopefully continue for another week and has recently had numbers up in the 15,000-20,000 range. Early March can be an exciting transition time.
Thanks to IYBC for partnering with Marsh Madness and Friends of Goose Pond on this trip for young birders!

Goose Pond MBTA Centennial Crane Field Trip




Goose Pond MBTA Centennial Crane Field Trip

Start Date/Time: February 27, 2016 9:00 AM Eastern Time
End Date/Time: February 27, 2016 by 2:00 PM Eastern Time
Recurring Event: One time event
Description: Goose Pond MBTA Centennial Crane Trip
Sponsorship: Indiana Audubon Society & Friends of Goose Pond

Leaders: Lee Sterrenburg and Kathy McClain, Friends of Goose Pond

Details: Field trip to Goose Pond FWA in Greene County IN in conjunction with the USFWS 2016 Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) Centennial Celebration. The aim is to underscore the accomplishments of the MBTA and what the Act later made possible for bird conservation and bird habitat conservation and funding. The recovering Eastern Sandhill Crane numbers and the reintroduced Eastern Whooping Cranes provide showcase example of how the MBTA helps birds. Indiana’s Goose Pond FWA serves as a major migration and staging area for both crane species. The best way for birders, photographers, and nature enthusiasts to continue to enjoy bird conservation efforts at the state FWA’s is by purchasing a combination Indiana Sport Recreation License (AKA combo DFW hunting and fishing license). They can contribute to Federal efforts by continuing to purchase a 2015-16 Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (the “Duck Stamp”).

Where: This trip will meet at the Goose Pond FWA office. For Google Map driving directions go the Indiana DNR web site for Goose Pond FWA (http://www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/3094.htm) and click on the “Get Directions” tab under the street address. In general, the office is located on the south side of Highway 59 traveling south out of the town of Linton just after the road turns to the west. It has two white barns, a modular building, and a parking area. The trip will meet inside the modular building for a pre-field trip presentation on the MBTA centennial celebration and the latest information on sandhill and whooping cranes and the latest info on ongoing conservation efforts for both species. Bring a lunch and drinks!

Birds: the trip will focus on viewing the thousands of Sandhill Cranes, several Whooping Cranes, raptors, ducks and geese that include Greater White-fronted Geese and Snow Geese, and with luck and the right weather a flock of American White Pelicans that frequent Goose Pond FWA most of the year.

Order of things: We will begin with a half hour indoor presentation that will include handouts on the MBTA and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Recovery Act (the “Pittman-Robertson” Act). It will include explanations of how DFW funding operates. Handouts and discussion will focus on the history of Eastern Sandhill Crane decline and extirpation of Eastern whooping cranes and subsequent recoveries including an introduction to crane behavior, life cycles, tracking, habitat use, and changing migration patterns. We will then carpool and tour the property hoping to see some of these historical and institutional perspectives in action.

Trip size limit: the trip has a strict cap of 35 participants. Advance registration required. People will be taken on a first come, first served basis. To sign up, email the trip leader, Lee Sterrenburg, and give names of participants:
sterren AT indiana.edu.

Critter Corner No. 13

Critter Corner No. 13

The Virginia Opossum

by George Sly

Opossum Pic

  (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

 

In the last edition of Critter Corner I spoke of the coyote as a Goose Pond mammal which doesn’t garner the respect it deserves. To this list of unappreciated mammals I now add the Virginia opossum. Hardly anyone I encounter seems to have a good word for this curious and ancient denizen of Indiana’s fields and forests. The root of this problem seems to me to lie with the human tendency to anthropomorphize animals. This propensity to invest wild animals with human characteristics seems nearly universal. Thus the opossum is labeled as stupid, ugly, repulsive, or dirty. “It looks like a giant rat”, some will say. “The nasty things come up on my porch and eat the food I left for the cats”, says another. “Why do they make that hideous grin”, asks someone else? I think you get my drift. These little critters get less respect than Rodney Dangerfield ever did.

And yet I will argue that, like the coyote, there is much to be admired about the opossum In fact, I will go so far as to suggest that this is one of the most interesting mammals in all of North America. The opossum was the first and only marsupial encountered by the European colonizers of what was to become the United States. Their common name is derived from a Native American word, apasum, which means “white animal”. In 1792 Scottish science writer Robert Kerr examined the species and bestowed upon it the scientific name Didelphis virginiana. The species name is derived from the place the animal was first observed. The genus name is more interesting and is actually descriptive of the reproductive tract of the female. As you know, Greek or Latin is used in forming the root of scientific names. Didelphis comes from the Greek di meaning two and delphys, the term for the womb. The reproductive structure and physiology of marsupials like the opossum are among the most interesting aspects of their biology.

As the genus name suggests, females have a highly bifurcated reproductive system with two uteri as well as paired vaginas. Of course, like other marsupials, the female also has an abdominal pouch in which the young grow and develop. Incidentally, male opossums have a bifid (dual-forked) penis. This likely delivers spermatozoa into the branched female tract more efficiently. Such anatomy in the male has led to one of the more bizarre myths about the opossum. Since the only visible double openings on the female are the nostrils, colonists with a poor understanding of anatomy and physiology surmised that opossums must breed through the nostrils of the female. This myth was emboldened by the fact that, just before the birth of the young, the female may be seen grooming her pouch and abdomen. The conclusion followed that she was blowing or sneezing her babies into the pouch from her nostrils where they had formed. Needless to say, this story is literally 180o from accurate.

In reality, opossums mate essentially like other mammals although the course of development followed by their young is quite bizarre compared to placental mammals like us (and most all other mammals). Baby opossums are born in what is essentially an embryonic state after only thirteen days or so of gestation. This is an amazingly short period of time to go from a fertilized egg to a viable, and mobile embryo. Newborn opossums are about the size of a honeybee and weigh only a few thousandths of an ounce. Even after a few days of growth they are tiny as the following image illustrates.

Opossum Dime (photo courtesy Opossum Soc. of the U.S.)

After emerging from the female at birth, the young pull themselves upward through her fur and move into the pouch. Here there are thirteen nipples to which the newborn attach themselves. Lasting several weeks, this attachment is semi-permanent as the nipple swells inside the mouth of the young. If more than thirteen young are born (the average is seven to nine) those who do not secure a nipple will not survive. It is interesting to note that the length of gestation in mammals is directly related to their size; the bigger the mammal, the longer the gestation period. For a placental mammal the size of an opossum we might expect a gestation period within the mother of around two months. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is the normal period of development within the pouch of opossums. Thus the marsupial and placental mammals have periods of embryonic and fetal growth relative to adult size which are very similar. But they use two exceedingly different evolutionary strategies to accomplish this. That is, placental mammals carry out much of their development within the mother’s uterus while marsupials complete their growth and maturation inside the mother’s pouch. After several weeks of development within the pouch, young opossums begin to venture out and, while accompanying their mother, to explore their environment. During this time, the young may be seen hitching a ride on mom’s back. By about four months after their birth the littermates will have taken up an independent and largely solitary lifestyle.

Aside from their mode of reproduction, unique among North American mammals, opossums possess other interesting features. Their skull contains 50 teeth, a number higher than any of our other native mammals. Such a large number of teeth is considered a primitive characteristic in mammals. As an example more highly evolved skulls, such as those of mice, often have only 16 teeth. The hind feet of opossums have an opposable inner toe which is of great use in climbing. They also have a somewhat prehensile tail. This is used to stabilize themselves while climbing and is also used to gather leaf material in nest building. Adult opossums are often seen missing the tip of their tail due to a propensity for it to be damaged by frostbite. The behavior of opossums is also of distinctive interest. When confronted with danger, an opossum may gape the mouth exposing its teeth, hiss, growl, and salivate. This behavior is perhaps responsible  for the reputation opossums have for being vicious. In fact they are fairly placid animals. Should its attempt at fierceness fail to deter a threat, an opossum will often “play dead”. This is the origin of the term playing possum. This behavior is not just an act. The animal’s feigned death is a neuromuscular reaction beyond its conscious control. Once this behavior kicks in the opossum is out for a period of time lasting minutes to hours. Since predators don’t normally utilize prey they find dead, the opossum may derive protection from potential enemies such as dogs, coyotes, and bobcats.

Opossums are thought to have evolved in South America and found their way into North America during the Pleistocene Epoch. The fact that they have been here for perhaps a million years should tell us that their survival skills are rather admirable. You may recall that in my essay about the coyote I characterized them as generalists, particularly in regards to diet. The same can be said of the opossum and, in both cases, these animals are also capable of using a wide variety of habitats. These are recipes for success in the animal kingdom. Opossums are notorious as omnivores. There is not much that they will not utilize as food. They will eat mice, shrews, their own kind, birds, snakes, lizards, earthworms, snails, ground beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, carrion, and plant materials such as persimmons, apples, and seeds. Given the opportunity they will happily feed upon our garbage. While often perceived as “stupid” by humans, opossums are experts at finding and remembering the source of food. Granted they do have a cranial capacity that is relatively small for their size, about a third of that of the house cat. However studies have shown that their ability to remember is on a par with rodents, cats, and dogs.

Perhaps another factor has worked in favor of the opossum’s survival as a species over immense spans of geologic time. Scientific studies have shown them to be unaffected by to two environmental resistance factors: venomous snake bites and viral pathogens. Experiments have shown that opossums are essentially immune to the bites of dangerous serpents such as the eastern diamondback rattlesnake and cottonmouth water moccasin. It has been determined that their blood contains a protein which binds to, and neutralizes, the venom of these snakes. This mechanism is being investigated in regards to a possible antivenin for use in humans; one which does not have the allergic potential of horse serum derived antivenins.

Likewise opossums are resistant to diseases such as distemper, parvovirus, and feline hepatitis which often affect both domestic and wild mammals. Opossums also appear to be seldom afflicted with rabies. A common hypothesis as to the source of this resistance has to do with the slightly cooler body temperature of the opossum compared to other mammals. In one study it was shown that opossums had an average diurnal body temperature of about 90oF. Most other mammals have an average body temperature closer to the 98.6oF average of humans. It is thought that the cooler body creates an environment unsuitable for viral growth.

If you are among those who have held a low opinion of the Goose Pond’s only marsupial mammal, I hope this essay has given you a new perspective. Like so many other native animals that we humans tend to only superficially contemplate, the Virginia opossum turns out to be a creature of rich and varied interest. It is my hope that you will now be more inclined to give the opossum looming in your headlights a little more time to skedaddle off the road. You might even turn a blind eye to the occasional pilfering of dog food from the back porch. Perhaps you will even feel motivated to share what you have learned with all those opossum-haters out there. After all, our most unique mammal is a species with its own role to play within its ecological world. And it most certainly needs all the friends it can get in today’s over-crowded world. In the end, let us remember that the opossum is an emissary from deep time. It is a species whose particular structures and behaviors have allowed it to survive for thousands upon thousands of generations. Surely this is deserving of a little respect on our part.

Resources for those interested in the Virginia Opossum

  1. The Opossum: Its Amazing Story. William J. Krause and Winifred A. Krause. web.missouri.edu/~krausew/Histology/Home_files/opossum.pdf
www.yorkccd.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/A-Simple-Review-of-Opossums.pdf

Critter Corner No. 12

Critter Corner No. 12  
The Coyote Critter 12by George Sly


I must say, this is the first edition of Critter Corner I have had to begin by offering a disclaimer. But the fact is that few other animals generate the polarized love or hate sentiments engendered by Canis latrans. So, I have to begin by professing a degree of sympathy and admiration for this much maligned predator. Others will not feel so kindly toward the coyote. But, as always, the opinions expressed in Critter Corner are mine and not the Friends of Goose Pond, the DNR. or any other entity. Hopefully I can shed some light on how I find admirable qualities in a mammal with such a generally poor reputation among the public.

 Contrary to stories I often hear, the coyote was not introduced into Indiana (the DNR is the usual culprit in these tales). In fact coyotes were present in Indiana when it was first settled. At that time, they inhabited primarily the western portions of the state where extensions of the prairie encroached into the vast eastern deciduous forest. Many 19th century reports of coyotes referred to them as “prairie wolves”.

 The first time I can recall actually hearing of a coyote in our area was, I believe, the late 1960’s. An article in a local newspaper showed a coyote that had been shot. The headlines referred to it as a “50 pound female timber wolf”. I did the prep on that specimen while at Indiana State University and it was indeed a coyote. Confusion between these two canids is common; they do bear a superficial resemblance. Up close, the greater size of the gray wolf is very apparent. Coyotes weigh 24-46 lbs. while Canis lupus females weigh around 60 lbs. and males go well over 100 lbs.  It has been suggested that eastern coyotes have, in the past, hybridized with gray wolves. As a result eastern coyote individuals tend to be somewhat larger than their western brethren.  Typically height at the shoulder for a coyote is around 24 inches while a gray wolf can be closer to three feet. Upon seeing a gray wolf in a zoo, where a close approach is possible, one is astounded by just how big they really are. This size disparity is an evolutionary adaptation to diet. Coyotes do not generally tackle the large mammalian prey (bison, moose, elk) taken by gray wolves. This is also why the latter are pack hunters.

 Coyote numbers began to increase markedly in Indiana at about the time I heard news of that first one. The 1970’s found their populations really starting to take off. Now they are found throughout the state. Not only that, they have extended their range into all of the eastern states as well. In fact, as this image (Natl. Museum of Nat. Hist.) shows, coyotes today have one of the most extensive geographic ranges of any large American predator.
 One of the secrets to the success of the coyote is that they are supreme generalists. Such animals are Critter 12 2those that can utilize a wide variety of habitats and foods. This opens up exceedingly large areas in which they may live. We might compare this with an animal that is a specialist. The giant panda would be one example. With a diet comprised of essentially one type of plant (bamboo), this species is restricted to one small area of Asia where this particular sustenance and the habitat that supports it are found.

 Coyotes can, of course, utilize a huge variety of habitat types. Originally they were, as noted, animals of the western prairies. But they are equally at home in desert environments, deciduous and mixed forests, edge habitats, agricultural lands, and suburban landscapes. It is not unusual to hear news of coyotes roaming urban areas. An article about coyotes in the July 17th issue of The Week magazine mentioned New York City, Chicago, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, and Atlanta as cities with populations of coyotes.
 Like their ability to utilize a wide variety of habitats, the capacity to eat an equally broad diversity of foods is a key in the immense biological success of the coyote. They eat a wide assortment of animals, mostly mammals. Voles are a major component of their diet. The eastern cottontail is also a favored prey item. J. O. Whitaker, in his Mammals of Indiana, reports that Voles, other mice species, and cottontails make up over 70% of the coyote’s diet. Carrion is often consumed and of course complicates the issue of whether livestock eaten by a coyote was preyed upon or scavenged. Coyotes will also consume insects, fruits, berries, and grasses.
 Concern has been expressed that coyote predation on white-tailed deer fawns may significantly decrease deer populations. Studies have shown that predation by coyotes is a significant factor in deer fawn mortality 1,2.  However other studies have shown that the impact on deer populations is not detrimental in the long run3, particularly if doe harvest quotas are taken into account. 
 As a result of coyote predation on deer, rabbits, and other game species, many attempts at population control have been undertaken. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of an animal that has been more persecuted than this species. Historically they have been trapped, shot, and poisoned at every opportunity. In spite of this, the coyote has shown its remarkable ability to not just survive but to thrive. Recent studies have shown that coyote populations subjected to culling pressure actually produce more offspring. Given their intelligence, adaptability, and reproductive potential it seems a safe bet that coyotes are here to stay.

 Around homes coyotes can be a danger to pets. A 2009 study done in Tucson, Arizona found that domestic cats made up 42% of the diet of urban coyotes. Are coyotes a danger to humans also? In reality, attacks on humans are quite rare. In the U.S., since 1976, there have been 160 instances of coyotes targeting people. There have been two recorded deaths resulting from coyote attack4.  In perspective, we might compare this with the 5,581domestic dog attacks suffered just by postal workers in a single year – 20135.  In 2015, 42 people were killed in this country as a result of dog attack6. As tragic as any of these attacks may be, it seems clear wherein lies the greater danger.
 We humans have historically had a tension filled coexistence with predators. Could it be that we have 
an embedded primordial fear of predators? One would assume that, during our early evolutionary history, large predators made no distinction between a meal of Australopithecus or one of gazelle. Certainly, for our American ancestors living on the frontier, the loss of a cow or herd of swine to ;predators could be a life threatening event. It seems to me that the coyote, even today, bears the brunt of an innate human anxiety regarding predators.

 But perhaps we should take a moment to consider that even the coyote has its good side. Its heavy predation on voles and deerCritter 12 3 mice helps to maintain nature’s balance. In some areas they predate the eggs and young of Canada geese, itself a species whose numbers may often test the limits of human tolerance. Ironically, coyotes may benefit ground nesting birds, such as turkeys, by preying upon smaller carnivores which might consume turkey eggs or young7. And, while some may deplore the killing of fawns by coyotes, we must recognize the damage that over-browsing by too many deer may cause in our woodlands.
  
(photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

 I suggest that we take a fresh look at the coyote. Let us forgo our old prejudices and consider Canis latrans for what it is – a survivor. The La Brea Tar Pits have yielded a fossil of this species 46,000 years old8. Through the generations the coyote has endured everything both nature and humans have thrown at it. Surely this resiliency and endurance is worthy of a little respect on our part. Camilla Fox of California’s Project Coyote has well characterized both the coyote and our relationship with this remarkable mammal. “The reality is, coyotes are incredibly adaptable, intelligent, resilient animals, and they have learned how to coexist with us. But we’re still trying to figure out how to coexist with them.”9

 Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is considered by many the father of wildlife conservation and management. His understanding of the role of predators within ecosystems was light years ahead of its time.  Thus, in concluding my ruminations upon the coyote, I find it fitting to reflect upon his words. “Harmony with the land,” he said, “is like harmony with a friend. You cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say you cannot have game and hate predators. The land is one organism.”10

Resources
1. Whittaker, Donald G. and Frederick G. Lindzey. 1999.  Effect of Coyote Predation on Early Fawn Survival in Sympatric Deer Species. Wildlife Society Bulletin Vol. 27, No. 2.. 256-262
2. Ballard, Warren B., Heather A. Whitlaw, Steven J. Young, Roger A. Jenkins and Graham J. Forbes.  1999. Predation and Survival of White-Tailed Deer Fawns in Northcentral New Brunswick. The Journal of Wildlife Management. Vol. 63, No. 2 . 574-579
3. Mulhollem, Jeff . 2014. Research indicates coyote predation on deer in East manageable. http://news.psu.edu/story/315340/2014/05/09/research/research-indicates-coyote-predation-deer-east-manageable
4. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coyote attacks on humans
5. www.americanhumane.org/about-us/newsroom/news-releases/national-dog-bite-prevention-week.html.).  
6. www.dogsbite.org/dog-bite-statistics-fatalities-2014.php
7. Bottom, Christopher. 2014. Habitat Overlap Among  Mesocarnivores and Wild Turkeys in an Agricultural Landscape. Thesis abstract. Southern Illinois University.
8. /www.tarpits.org/la-brea-tar-pits/faqs
9. The Week Magazine. July 17, 2015.
10. Leopold, Aldo. 1966.  Round River, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993, pp. 145-146.

MAJOR POTENTIAL UPGRADE FOR SHOREBIRD HABITAT AND SHOREBIRD VIEWING ACCESSIBILITY AT GOOSE POND FWA

12278790_1102942119725559_1582567401456315710_n[1]  12243346_1102941849725586_8908663663411272551_n[2]The Field E habitat improvement project, with hydrology study and design specifications done by Ducks Unlimited. Installation to be done by DFW South Region Public Access. The work is projected to begin in late November or this coming winter weather permitting.

Funding for DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife by individuals purchasing state hunting and fishing licenses and matching appopriated funds from the Federal Wildlife Restoration Act. Major Field E birds have included numerous shorebirds and Indiana’s first State Record SPOTTED REDSHANK (same bird came twice!) and White-faced Ibis in 2013. Field E has also hosted waterfowl in late fall, winter, and early spring. The convenient roadside site at the intersection of CR 400 S & State Highway 59 is located on the way to the new and in-progress Goose Pond FWA Regional DFW Office and Visitor Center on CR 400 S. The chance Field E shorebird conditions of March 2013 can now be intentionally managed for via proper formal infrastructure for manipulating water levels. Thanks to DFW, Ducks Unlimited, and all involved in this upgrade. This is significant “Wildlife Restoration” in action.

Photos of the Field E water control hardware, Field E on March 27-29, 2013, before and during the first Spotted Redshank drama. Kirk Roth found did the ID on the Spotted Redshank.

The Field E upgrade provides another compelling demonstration for why GPFWA visitors who go birding or do wildlife photography should purchase a combined Indiana hunting and fishing license for $25 (people go fishing and hunting already do their share by purchasing licenses). You may get another Spotted Redshank–or something as spectacular–out of the deal. To support DFW wildlife conservation management efforts and to purchase a license go to:

http://www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/7491.htm

–Lee Sterrenburg DNR bird monitoring volunteer Goose Pond FWA

Buy Indiana Hunting and Fishing License

Indiana DNR LogoPurchasing Indiana state hunting and fishing licenses, with apportioned matching funds generated through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (popularly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act) signed into law in 1937 and the Dingell-Johnson Act of the 1950″s, pays for the majority of the cost for running and managing Indiana Fish and Wildlife Areas. Funds generated thrugh hunting and fishing basically make DFW conservation happen. Benefitting waterfowl and all species on our FWAs.

New media

  Indiana Wild Bulletin Audubon Bird Link

Critter Corner No. 11 – Common Snapping Turtle

TurtleBy George Sly I ran across one of these fellows on a recent trip to GPFWA. With water levels at their lowest, I espied a large animal moving across a small island between two shallow pools in the GP 11 basin. Training my binoculars on the movement, a huge common snapping turtle was revealed. Much like the image above, it was well up on its legs and making a determined though ponderous beeline for the next available water. I was struck by the near-prehistoric look of the turtle. In fact, the fossil record shows that its ancestors did indeed share the late Mesozoic world with the dinosaurs. I imagine most people would put the common snapping turtle low on their list of most attractive animals. Nevertheless, this species fascinates me with its ancient visage, stubborn ability to survive, and short-tempered disposition. This irascible nature, particularly when out of the water, seems to be one of the first things we humans learn about the snapping turtle. As boys, my brother and I were once given the task of removing a large snapping turtle from our aunt’s horse pasture. They feared the soft muzzle of one of their fine Arabians was in danger of a good nipping. We coaxed the offending turtle into a large feed bucket and set off intending to deliver it to a nearby pond. My brother had no sooner picked up the bucket than I glanced down and saw the big snapper’s head and neck slowly easing outward from under the carapace. I had the distinct image of a bowstring being slowly drawn to tautness.. “Look out,” I shouted. My brother let go of the bucket handle just as the turtle’s gaping maw shot upward toward his hand. He kept all his fingers but did end up with a surgical-like incision across the knuckles of his middle finger. We did get the turtle to the planned pond but henceforth we both gave all snapping turtles we encountered much more respect. Snapping turtles, of which there are two species in Indiana, belong to a family known as the Chelydridae. This name is derived from a combination of the Greek terms for turtle and water. The geographic range of the huge alligator snapping turtle extends only into extreme southwestern Indiana. This species, which prefers riverine habitats, is the largest freshwater turtle in North America. As a graduate student, I recall seeing one which was in captivity at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. At that time, the turtle weighed nearly 220 pounds as I recall. Upon its death in 1982 it had maxed out at 236 pounds. The largest wild specimen known is said to have weighed in at 219 pounds. The alligator snapping turtle is more common in the southern United States but is threatened by overharvesting in some areas. In Indiana and Illinois it is a protected species. The alligator snapping turtle spends much of its time lying under water, in ambush mode, on the muddy substrate. It is unique among turtles in having a fleshy projection of the tongue which is used as a lure to attract prey into range of its jaws. The chelydrids at GPFWA are the eastern or common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina). The specific moniker is in reference to the snake-like head and neck of this species. Common snapping turtles, while not nearly the size of their big cousins, are still among the largest of fresh water turtles. The typical range of weights for this species is 20-25 pounds. The late Sherman Minton, Indiana’s preeminent herpetologist, reported seeing a specimen from Noble County (NW of Fort Wayne) that weighed 46 pounds, the largest he had seen. One of the reasons that this turtle is so common is that it is a supreme generalist in regards to the habitats it utilizes. While adults prefer larger, deeper bodies of water common snapping turtles will make use of ponds, ditches, marshes, and the quiet waters of streams. They often wander far from water especially in springtime. Common snapping turtles are also quite catholic in regards to their diet, another reason for their success. Typical food items include aquatic plants, crayfish, frogs, tadpoles, insects, fish, and carrion. Common snapping turtles may hibernate during the winter time. Minton mentions them using muskrat lodges or sheltered areas on the bottom of ponds or lakes. However, these turtles may be active in the winter and have been observed moving about in the water beneath a frozen surface. Common snapping turtles, like other members of the turtle clan, are oviparous which means that they lay eggs. Female snapping turtles dig a nest cavity using their hind feet and deposit eggs into this cavity after which it is covered over. Typically around two dozen eggs are then left (2.5 – 3 months) to hatch on their own. Like some other reptiles the incubation temperature of the eggs determines the sex of the hatchling which will emerge. Eggs exposed to temperatures of 22-28C produce males. Nest temperatures below 20C and above 30C produce females. A study by Wilhoft, Hotaling, and Franks (1983) found that eggs near the surface of the nest usually produced female hatchlings while those on the bottom produced males. The nests of common snapping turtles are vulnerable to predation by raccoons, skunks, and foxes. In Indiana, the common snapping turtle is considered a game species. They may be taken year round. One must have a hunting or fishing license to take any reptile from the wild but as a game species snapping turtles (as well as the two soft-shelled turtles) are subject to bag and possession limits. Go to: http://www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/3328.htm for more information. By the way, while on the subject of turtles, don’t forget that the eastern box turtle is now a protected species in Indiana. They are not to be taken from the wild. Common snapping turtles are, naturally, of interest to turtle hunters because of their edibility. A quick perusal of the Internet will yield a plethora of recipes for turtle soups and stews. MacGowan, Kingsbury, and Williams in their Turtles of Indiana suggest that the species may be under threat in certain areas because of its use for human consumption. But of course sometimes the turtle wins. Last summer my wife and I sat waiting for a freight train to clear the tracks in southern Sullivan County. At idle In front of us sat a well-used pickup truck, the bed holding an assortment of treasures. As I sat absentmindedly observing the passing train a movement from the truck’s bed caught my eye. At first I thought the passengers had thrown something out the window. But, as I looked more closely, what I saw was a fairly large common snapping turtle lying on its back in the road. Having climbed up the inside of the truck bed and pitched itself onto the road, it was now struggling to overturn itself. With deft exertion of its head and long neck, the turtle quickly flipped itself upright and began to hightail it toward the nearest roadside ditch. I could imagine the disappointment that would result when the truck’s driver found his much anticipated turtle stew no longer existed. For a fleeting moment I contemplated alerting him to the fact that his dinner was rapidly heading for cover. But I didn’t. In soft-hearted acknowledgment of the old reptile’s powerful survival instinct, I gave a silent cheer as it disappeared into the water-filled ditch. I appreciated the fact that one doesn’t survive since the Paleocene without having an attitude and a good dose of toughness. Useful Resources Oktay, Sandra D. 2009. Snapping Turtles. http://yesterdaysisland.com/archives/science/5.php. Yesterday’s Island. Today’s Nantucket. 39 (5). MacGowan, Brian J., Bruce A. Kingsbury, and Rod N. Williams. 2005. Turtles of Indiana. Purdue Extension Publ. FNR-243. West Lafayette, Indiana. Minton Jr., Sherman A. 2001. Amphibians and Reptiles of Indiana. Indiana Academy of Sciences. Indianapolis. Wilhoft, D.C., E. Hotaling and P. Franks. 1983. Effects of temperature on sex determination in embryos of the snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina. J. Herp. 17: 38-42.