How much soup can you make with 497 turtles?
Lucky for the turtles, you can’t make any – in fact, taking Suwannee cooters (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) in Florida is illegal, so if you were automatically thinking the redneck version “Suwannee chicken” when you read "Suwannee cooters," think again.
But the turtles were as thick as soup in the spring – and I don’t mean Campbell’s wimpy-chicken-noodle-soup-thick… I mean homemade-beef-stew-thick.
They have been this dense in Blue Spring since June. I’m not sure of the exact date, but one week they weren’t there, the next weekend there were about 20, and soon after that, the number skyrocketed. It’s an absolutely amazing phenomenon – both to see and experience and also to think about as a scientist: Why has this never happened before? How are they communicating to let each other know this is the best spot? How far have some turtles traveled to get to the spring? Will they eat all of the hydrilla then leave? Or will they eat all of the other plants too? …and the list of questions goes on…
I’ve been visiting Blue since before the turtle invasion, each time taking photos, writing detailed notes, and spending hours in the water observing the turtles’ behaviors, movements, etc. Since my primary interest in school is grazers in the springs, I am now doing a little side project on this incredible example of large-scale grazing of hydrilla by the turtles – which is pretty ironic in itself because if you had asked me 3.5 years ago, I would have enthusiastically told you that I was going to become a sea turtle biologist.
I am certainly not a turtle expert, but there are some awesome resources in Gainesville to help solve this problem. Thinking back to a springs-related event at O’Leno State Park this past May, I remembered meeting Dr. Jerry Johnston, a professor at Santa Fe and head of the Santa Fe River TurtleProject. One phone call later, and a few meetings with my advisor at UF, we were on to something…
After a ton of planning, designing, and discussing it was time for two field days of visual turtle counts and vegetation sampling... aka swimming mixed with science; I was in heaven. In the main spring/run, we counted an average of 283 (max count of 351) turtles in the mornings (Note: don’t try to go in the afternoon, you will be thoroughly disappointed because they leave the spring!). Then, we spent one day in the lab processing the vegetation samples and suddenly it was the weekend of Jerry’s big turtle-tagging event.
I’ve never seen so many volunteers come forward to help with a science project – I guess giving people the opportunity to catch protected turtles attracts crowds. In addition to Greg, I had rallied some troops from USGS (the awesome “Team Sturgeon” who I worked with for about a year, including Ken, Mike, and Bethan) while Jerry had a bunch of his core turtle-tagging crew, students, friends, and enthusiastic volunteers.
|The calm before the storm.|
Greg and I drove up to Blue, arriving early to beat the Sunday spring-goers. I jumped in right away to do a visual count and even though I was a frozen icicle by the end because I was in too much of a rush to change into a wetsuit first, it was totally worth it to observe the beautiful calm before the storm – and more turtles than I’d ever seen in my life. In one half of the hydrilla-covered main basin (a 50m x 13m transect), I’ve been counting between 140 and 169 turtles. That morning there were 306. Our entire count for the main spring and spring run (not counting Naked Spring) was 389 – 106 higher than average over the past few weeks and 38 higher than our highest count ever.
|Adrienne lurking with a turtle... she's been working with Jerry and the turtles for a few years and is an expert turtler :)|
After drifting down the calm, clear, turtle-filled run, a controlled version of chaos ensued. What was once a quiet and peaceful scene became a cat-chasing-dog craziness of people dashing after the turtles, snatching them up and putting them in canoes, and bringing them over to the tent to be tagged, weighed, sexed, measured, and inspected by Jerry.
|While I didn't personally catch or tag the turtles, I couldn't resist bonding with this little guy...|
|... he was just too impossible to resist.|
If I’ve learned anything about myself over the past two years since graduating from college it’s that I do not make a good hands on animal biologist – it simply doesn’t work. I am 100% fascinated by the sturgeon, the fish in the springs, and turtles, but actually netting fish, picking up fish, electrofishing, grabbing turtles, and doing invasive tagging procedures… forget it. I’m not necessarily grossed out and I have thought long and hard about why I can’t do it; here is not necessarily the place where I will pour out my feelings about it, but there is something in my vegan heart that doesn’t even want to touch the animals or disturb them. Believe me, I’ve tried every way possible to convince myself and pump myself up, but the more I think about it, the more excited I get to study vegetation and algae in the springs. But nothing will ever make me want to give up being in the field, immersed in the springs observing turtles, monitoring plants, doing fish counts and surveys, taking water samples, and just being around the springs in general.
Anyway, as canoes and canoes full of upside down turtles paraded up and down the spring run, I took pictures and observed the turtles (and people). Some experienced “turtlers” could hold 3 or 4 at a time, grabbing each one individually then hugging it to their body as they reached with their free hand to grab a few more. It’s actually quite impressive to watch.
|Some expert turtle catchers with their hands full (from top to bottom: Mike, Pete, and Adrienne).|
While Jerry and his tagging team worked diligently at their little tent by Naked Spring and truckloads of turtles sat patiently waiting to be tagged, I went over to the main basin with Greg and John Moran. We spent the afternoon making pictures with John, exploring Little Blue Spring, and observing the tagged turtles as they were re-introduced into the spring – a liberating and exciting event and quite visually interesting as a whole slew of domino-dotted turtles re-entered the spring and began again feasting on the hydrilla.
|John Moran on his "Johnny pod" in the middle of Blue Springs - totally in his element getting some amazing photos.|
|Greg exploring Little Blue Spring.|
|Some spotted turtles in Naked Spring.|
|Freedom! One turtle out at the sandy end of the run, taking one last breath before heading back out into the tannic Santa Fe River.|
While my observational study of the vegetation will hopefully have some interesting results, Jerry’s Santa Fe Turtle Project (now with almost 2000 turtles tagged!) has the ability to teach us an incredible amount about both this amazing congregation of turtles and the understudied turtles of the Santa Fe River in general.
So, what’s up with the white-spotted turtles, you may ask? No, it’s not a new species. And no, they’re not eyes. They are two spots of non-toxic paint that will wear off after a month and they help us, in the short term, easily identify which turtles we just tagged at this massive tagging event. If you spot them somewhere that is not Blue Spring, please let me know the date and location, either through Facebook, a comment on this post, or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) – we really appreciate it!!