Shenipsit Lake turtle study showing new point of view

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Vernon/Ellington/Tolland - posted Thu., Aug. 4, 2011
A still frame from underwater footage shows the turtle watching fish swim by. Photo courtesy of National Geographic. - Contributed Photo

Snapping turtles are docile when in water, and don't actively hunt fish or other animals – that's just one myth already being debunked by a special project at Shenipsit Lake.

Crittercams – a trademark of National Geographic – were developed about 25 years ago by filmmaker Greg Marshall, while studying sharks and remora (suckerfish). He realized that if a camera were in place of the remora, it could record the habits of the shark without interfering with it.

The cameras allow humans to see the lives of animals from their point of view, and several versions of the camera now exist, to accommodate different types of animals.

Longtime turtle researcher Chris Luginbuhl, of Tolland, was instrumental in helping to fund the original development of the camera, which made him a natural fit when it was decided that the habits of snapping turtles should be studied. Luginbuhl secured use of the lake (on which he also lives) from the Connecticut Water Company, and recruited helpers for what is unofficially known as the “Snapping Turtle Research Team.”

At Shenipsit Lake, the cameras are being attached to turtles for eight- to-10-hour periods, and recording their daily lives. A special timed-release mechanism detaches the camera from the turtle, and a small radio transmitter allows it to be tracked and picked up by researchers.

The film is then reviewed and notes are made.

Those researchers include several local students, including Zachary Topor and Nathaniel Hogdon, both of Ellington, who said they have already learned a great deal from taking part in the study.

“The turtles don't like to move much,” Topor said. “They're also non-aggressive when they're in the water. When they're out of the water, that's when they become hostile, because they are out of their element.”

Arick Barsch is the project coordinator for a separate project called the Turtle Conservation Project and is an assistant with the Shenipsit Lake study. He said the cameras are also proving wrong the misconception that snapping turtles are hazardous to fish and other wildlife.

“A lot of people have a negative view on this turtle – that it's carnivorous and aggressive, eating ducklings and fish,” Barsch said. “That's highly false. Their diet is mostly vegetarian. What meat they do eat is mostly carrion. We have footage of them where fish have been inches in front of them and they pay no attention to them.”

“We want to get what habitats they're using,” Barsch said. “We're trying to get as much data as we can.”

“These animals are scavengers,” Luginbuhl said. “They feed on anything that would be dead in the water. We've seen them actually feeding on the bottom of the lake. We're getting some very interesting data. We think it's going to be very worthwhile and interesting.”

Barsch said the Crittercam study will also tell a lot about the turtles' surrounding environment.

“What else is in this lake that we don't know about?” he said. “In a place like this, where you can't go swimming, you can't see what's under the water.”

The fast-breeding red-eared slider turtle, which is not native to Connecticut, has been invading some habitats in the state because of people releasing pets into the wild.

“Are those red-eared sliders in here?” Barsch said. “Are the snapping turtles competing with any other animal for food?”

“We'll be able to learn their breathing patterns – their down times and surface times,” Luginbuhl said. “We also have some pretty interactions with other critters at the bottom of the lake. We have some spectacular footage of snapping turtles confronting other turtles.”

“So little is known about them,” Luginbuhl said, “and yet they play an important role. When you think about what they clean up in these lakes, you have to think about what would happen if they weren't here.”

The project began in late June, and the group is hoping to continue it through late August, with an extension of its original end-of-July terminus.

Results of the study will be turned over to National Geographic, which has also filmed the crew and part of their efforts. Luginbuhl said he hopes it will be turned into a “Wild Chronicles” special.

“For now, I think we've already made it work, since people are becoming aware of us,” he said. “We're enthused, and Marshall is enthused to see how far the camera is going.”

The Crittercam is also part of a large exhibit at Mystic Aquarium.

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