Aurora University professor tracks Blanding’s turtles
By David Sharos For Sun-Times Media October 24, 2013 2:04PM
Aurora University biologist Carrie Milne-Zelman shows students on Wednesday a radio transmitter she glues to shells of endangered Blanding’s turtles to monitor their movements in Kane County forest preserves. | Courtesy of Al Benson
Updated: November 28, 2013 6:24AM
Thanks to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the reptiles haven’t been taken too seriously by recent pop culture. But at Aurora University, turtles are a serious matter — especially the species known as the Blanding’s turtle, which is on the endangered species list.
Carrie Milne-Zelman, associate professor of biology at the university, offered a hourlong presentation Wednesday afternoon titled, “Turtle Telemetry: Using Radio Antennas to Track Turtles.” A year ago, Milne-Zelman received a grant through the State of Illinois’ Wildlife Preservation Fund to monitor the locations and movements of Blanding’s turtles in Kane County and neighboring counties in Illinois.
Milne-Zelman said she has been tracking local turtles’ movements the past four years to try and protect the almost non-existent population in the area.
“To the best of our knowledge, we have only two or three of these turtles in Aurora and maybe five we’ve encountered altogether,” Milne-Zelman said. “These animals are one of the first to be effected when their habitat changes. When we build roads or make other changes to the landscape, they are the first to suffer. They are indicators of the health of the eco-system.”
Using radio antennas attached to their shells, turtles are monitored to track their movements and protect their nests. Milne-Zelman said eggs laid by the turtles are particularly vulnerable to raccoons, whose presence, she said, increases exponentially around humans.
“Statistics show that, when humans move into an area like a developing suburb, the raccoon presence increases 500 percent as they like to live in barns or eat people’s garbage, and they also like to follow the female turtles and dig up their nests,” she said. “People often ask me what this possible extinction means for us as humans. The ‘end game’ might not matter in general to humans, so it comes down to whether people care these animals exist, or we’re willing to let them go away.”
More than 100 visitors attended the talk in the Aurora University banquet hall, which Lauren Jackson-Beck, technical services librarian, said was part of a series of free lectures focusing on science.
Milne-Zelman began by talking about the importance of reptiles and amphibians, and said that possible extinction robs us and future generations of knowledge and experience.
“I think about our future children and what if they could never see one of these creatures like the Blanding’s turtles?” she said. “Evolution also shows us possible solutions regarding the environment and how species overcame challenges.”
Milne-Zelman showed a picture of a turtle named Jonathan that reportedly is 176 years old.
“Think of the things we might learn from a creature like this in terms of what happens when we age, or things like cold tolerance,” she said.
Naperville resident Nicole Ariola, 22, attended Wednesday’s presentation and said she has participated in some trapping exercises and research. She said she became interested in Milne-Zelman’s project after some work she did at the Fox Valley Wildlife Center.
“I saw this as a way to increase my knowledge, and because of my major in biology, I’m thinking of going to veterinary school,” she said.
Ben Western, 21, of Dwight, said he also has participated in field work with Milne-Zelman and believes it is our responsibility to help restore the turtles.
“The way I see it is they were here first and we were the ones who messed things up, so we owe them,” he said. “This is our problem, and now we’re the only ones who can fix it.”