College student Janna Willoughby stands in a forest of jack pine and hardwoods a few hundred yards from a Northern Michigan river. In one hand she holds an antenna, in her other a receiver.
Slowly she swings the antenna through the air, listening as the receiver chirps like a little bird. “He’s close,” she says, absently swatting at black flies that swarm around her head. Willoughby’s fingers tweak the receiver dials, and then she steps carefully into the woods to follow the signal. In moments she finds her quarry, a wood turtle named 5032, and today, like other days, he’s snuffling around in a blueberry patch. Glued to his shell is the miniature transmitter that gave him away.
Willoughby and her colleague Deanna Gutowski are undergraduates from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, here to study this humble species that splits its time between the river and forest. Willoughby is mapping the turtle’s GPS coordinates, showing where the turtles spend their summers. Gutowski is inspecting turtles for injury and trying to assess what caused the wounds. Turtle 5032 is one of many turtles in the study this summer, nine of which roam the forest with transmitters on their backs.
Turtles are in trouble all over the globe, and likewise, the wood turtle is listed as a species of concern in Michigan. Wildlife biologists fear that an increase in predators, more cars on the roads, human pet trade and disappearing wetlands are all threats to our turtles. But very little is known about the wood turtle because it’s not economically important. As the students’ professor, Dr. Tim Lewis, says, “I could fill rooms with papers that have been written about the whitetail deer, but I could put every study ever done about the wood turtle in a three-foot stack.” This is the seventh summer that Lewis has sent students here as part of his long-term wood turtle studies.
The short antenna arcing off 5032’s shell makes him seem vaguely like a remote-control toy, but as Gutowski bends and picks him up, he proves he’s pure turtle will. His feet claw the air, his tail wags, he stretches his sinewy neck and quietly hisses. Then he pees, the clear liquid barely missing Gutowski’s hand.