This educational collaboration between Washington University's Tyson Research Center and the Missouri Botanical Garden's Shaw Nature Reserve is designed to engage St. Louis area high school students in scientifically-based exploration of the natural world. Linked programs of field training (SIFT) and field research (TERF) provide teenagers with experiences that realistically reflect research in environmental biology. Participating teens learn a variety of field investigation skills and then have the opportunity to put those new skills to work assisting career scientists with real research projects.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

In his own words: TERFer Ben Banet

As a TERFer, I was on the Turtle Team. I worked with Mihika (another TERFer) and Caroline and Olivia, two Washington University undergrads. Our team was part of the larger St. Louis Box Turtle Project. Despite box turtles being a common sight in much of the country, very little is really known about their habits and habitat needs. We know that humans have encroached on box turtle habitat and are having an effect on them, but the magnitude of that effect is not known. 

The St. Louis Box Turtle Project plans to change that by studying the turtles’ movement ecology and health. To do this, 19 turtles have radio tags attached to their shells and are tracked twice a week. Eight of these turtles live in 2,000 acres of hilly, wooded forest at Tyson Research Center. The other eleven live in the more urban environment of Forest Park. By comparing the habits of urban turtles to those in a more natural environment, we hope to learn about how much humans have affected the native turtles and learn better conservation tactics for their preservation and management. 

L-R: Mihika, Ben, and Caroline weigh Sparky the turtle at Tyson.

One of my favorite parts about TERF was being embedded in a research team for a whole month. SIFT was neat, but I just got to sample projects for a day or two. TERF was different, being able to really delve into a project and learn all about it. 

At first glance, it seemed easy enough - the turtles had radio tags, you'd walk up and find them and that's that. I soon learned tracking was a lot more complicated and difficult than I thought. On our first day of tracking, we headed out to find Megan, one of the tagged turtles at Tyson. After hiking three miles up and over Tyson's trails, we hadn't heard a single beep from Megan's tag, but after hiking up one more ridge, we heard a faint beep. I got excited by this and thought this would be easy enough now that we're close. Instead, the challenge was only half over. I soon learned the radio beeps from the tags can bounce on the steep hills and valleys. The advice, "Just walk in the direction of the loudest beep," was a lot harder in real life. After an hour of stumbling around in the woods off the trail, we finally found Megan. Collecting the basic data on weight, habitat, behavior, weather, health, and GPS location went quickly. We weighed her and gave her a quick health check, then set her down and hiked back to the Tyson headquarters for lunch. After hiking four miles and taking four hours to find just one turtle, I was frustrated and disappointed by turtle tracking. I wondered if every turtle would take four hours to find. 

Benton the turtle with his tracking tag.
Four weeks later, picking up the antennae and heading out to the forest to track isn't a big deal. The data sheets and measurements are no longer confusing. It wasn't easy to learn everything in a few weeks, but the undergrads were very supportive and wanted to help us, letting us learn by experience. Tracking turtles day after day soon became easier and easier. On Monday, July 22nd, we found all eight Tyson turtles in one day by 2:00 pm. That was a record fast time for the team. All the beeps had sounded the same that first day in the field, but now I was able to listen to the subtle differences and walk towards the turtle. Filling out the data sheets when we found a turtle had become quick and efficient. All of those were skills I didn't have just four weeks ago.

As a SIFTer, I would've just scratched the surface of the project and wouldn't have learned the whole scale. Helping out for a month, I learned about all sides of the project and how it was more than just tracking the turtles. Beyond our twice weekly tracking in Tyson, I learned about the health monitoring carried out by the Institute for Conservation Medicine (ICM) at the Saint Louis Zoo and met the four people on the ICM team. We got to track in Forest Park with the ICM team and collect swabs and samples for them to analyze back in their lab. We also got to explain our project to teachers and educators at the Forest Park Voyage of Learning Workshop. By the end of TERF, I felt like I had really experienced the entire project and learned a wide variety of skills related to turtle tracking. That deep, immersive experience in real research was just what I wanted to get out of TERF and I really enjoyed it.

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