Crittercam project expands beyond Shenipsit Lake

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Vernon/Ellington/Tolland - posted Tue., Jul. 9, 2013
Contributed
A snapping turtle, equipped with a Crittercam, heads into Shenipsit Lake. Photos courtesy of Charles Wright. - Contributed Photo

An animal behavioral study and environmental project at Shenipsit Lake that shows the real-time habits of snapping turtles has grown into an educational opportunity for children across Connecticut, and may also lead to some important data regarding the quality of water in lakes, rivers and ponds in the state.

The National Geographic Crittercam was 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.

About two years ago, researcher Chris Luginbuhl of Tolland formed a group of volunteers to use the technology on snapping turtles at Shenipsit Lake. Among their results, they found that the turtles are more docile creatures when in the water, as opposed to out of it, and that they tend to move very slowly.

Ken Hodgdon of Ellington and his son Nathaniel, 14, have been with the project for the past two years. Hodgdon said his love of technology and his son's love of animal science has made this a perfect project for the two of them to spend quality time together.

“Anything that my son's doing, I'm interested in,” he said. “It's all about him, not about me.”

While scientists analyze the data, it's the Hodgdons who are credited with doing a lot of the scientific “leg work,” caring for the creatures, programming, attaching and retrieving the cameras, and poring over footage to note anything of significance.

“It's amazing what they've done to help us,” said Luginbuhl. “We're charting a lot of down and surface times.”

They have also since learned that the turtles don't only eat fresh fish, but also feast on the corpses of dead fish in the lake. “In a place like Shenipsit, which is a public water supply, that's interesting,” Hodgdon said. “They are cleaning the lake for us. I don't think anybody realized that they did that before.”

They have also seen underwater combat, like when a snapping turtle begins to eat a piece of fish, another turtle will come along, snatch it away, and then attempt to flee with it.

The program has expanded to other bodies of water, including Wethersfield Cove and Keeney Cove in Glastonbury, where Luginbuhl said they obtained some “great footage.”

The turtle-cam project has also been taken under the wing of the Mystic Aquarium in conjunction with the Tributary Conservancy of Old Lyme. The Hodgdons are regulary part of the teaching corps that sees children from all over the state bused in to the conservancy's facility to learn about the Crittercam.

Hodgdon said Nathaniel is instrumental in showing how to program and attach the cameras to the turtles.

Hodgdon said the conservancy is also doing blood tests on the turtles, and although there is not yet enough data, eventually that will tell a lot about toxicity levels in Connecticut's waters. “We'll also know if there is any risk of them not adapting and becoming extinct,” Hodgdon said. “The other side is, if they are thriving, how are they doing it?”

Luginbuhl said the hope is that there will be at least 14 more camera deployments this summer, and that Connecticut's program will be a pilot for similar programs across the country. “I'm really excited about the progress we've made, and hope that it catches on,” Luginbuhl said.

“We've been spearheading keeping this thing alive, going forward,” Hodgdon said. “Our hope is to let the program grow organically, beyond us. If we plan it correctly, people can take it and grow it organically, especially with the support of National Geographic and Mystic Aquarium.”

For more information, visit http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/crittercam-about/.


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