USA–– A UNC Pembroke scientist is studying how one of the -forest’s slowest creatures survives fires that periodically torch their homes.
“One of the turtles we were tracking survived two fires,” says Dr. John Roe, a conservation biologist at UNC Pembroke. “But we’re only beginning to understand their response to fire.”
Roe is conducting a study of Eastern box turtles and their response to prescribed burns in the longleaf pine forests of Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve.
He is in the first year of a two- to three-year study in the 900-acre preserve, with a control study in the Lumber River State Park’s Wagram site.
With two UNCP student interns, the team has tagged about 10 turtles in each park with radio transmitters, and the team is tracking their movements and plotting GPS coordinates.
In his third year at UNCP, Roe has been studying turtles and snakes since he was in college.
Studying turtles is a slow business, he says, but the study is breaking new ground in box turtle conservation. The box turtle is North Carolina’s state reptile.
“The box turtle is the only terrestrial or land turtle in North Carolina,” Roe says. “They are a ‘management priority,’ but no one has established how the turtles respond to fire.”
Park rangers in Weymouth set prescribed fires that preserve the longleaf pine forest habitat. In nature, wildfires accomplish the same thing.
But what of the slow-moving turtle?
“It will be useful to know what the collateral damage is from the fires,” Roe says. “They are slow, so what do turtles do when they encounter fire? Can they survive such an encounter?”
The information Roe records will be useful for park rangers. Several papers and presentations are forthcoming, including one at a box turtle conservation meeting this spring at the North Carolina Zoo.
“It’s early in the study, so we don’t have enough observations of encounters between turtles and fires,” he says. “We are following burn-over survivors to see how they fare.”
The turtle who was twice burned survived with serious injuries and was later taken by a predator. All that was left was the heavily damaged radio transmitter, which Roe’s crew had epoxied to the shell.
The study launched in the summer of 2012, with Roe and students Kris Wild and Lucas Baxley catching and tagging turtles.
“You spend a lot of time searching for turtles,” he says. “We checked on our turtles two to three times a week, and now that school has started, Kris is continuing to track them once a week.”
Besides the response to fire, Roe is gathering other unique information about their movements that will reveal information about mating and seasonal behaviors and other facts.
Roe lives in Moore County, in part because he wanted to live near a state park. After forming a partnership with the park rangers, the UNCP biologist began his study. He also began hosting educational turtle walks for the public.
“In my trips to the park, I noticed a population of box turtles,” Roe says. “The park rangers at Weymouth and Lumber River State Park have welcomed us and allowed full access to their resources, including help from park staff in finding turtles.”
Roe also takes his field biology classes to the Lumber River State Park. The turtles there are the “control” piece of his study because the park does not conduct controlled burns.
“It’s been a gold mine,” he says. “They are great partners, and I keep the park rangers informed of our findings.”
With mounds of data, Roe expects to have an answer to the question of how turtles survive in a fiery world. In fact, some live to be 100 years old.
Roe, who has studied reptiles while earning a master’s degree from Purdue University and a doctorate from the University of Canberra in Australia discovered Weymouth’s turtle population on family hikes in the preserve. After gaining permission for the study from the park rangers, he also began offering box turtle tours to the public.
Visitors to Weymouth Woods can accompany him on a free turtle walk this Saturday, Oct. 20, at 1 p.m.