Archived Article

A new star at Shenipsit Lake

Tolland —  posted 08/12/2008
Chris Luginbuhl of Tolland was 4-years-old when his father came home from a fishing trip off Long Island Sound with an 1100-pound leatherback turtle in 1951 . The animal made a lasting impression . After his father’s death , Chris founded the David E . Luginbuhl Foundation to preserve the leatherback turtles , in 1981 .
Last Tuesday , Luginbuhl and teenagers from a nonprofit youthdevelopment agency , Our Piece of the Pie , made a big splash in research on the snapping turtle , with the help of Snippy , a 25-pound turtle named after the Shenipsit Lake that is his home . Snippy was pulled from a trap , measured , and weighed before being outfitted with a compact camera , or Crittercam , attached to his shell .
With the Crittercam , researchers can “ see what the turtle is actually seeing , ” said Luginbuhl . “ We can find out how they are interacting with other critters , how they are feeding , how they survive and how they ‘ make their living . ’ ”
Luginbuhl’s foundation funded marine biologist and filmmaker Greg Marshall’s first Crittercam study in 1989 with leatherback sea turtles was in the Virgin Islands . He and National Geographic were excited to come on board . “ Usually these guys are working with a scientific community , and they thought working with the kids was just a great human interest opportunity , ” said Luginbuhl .
When he shared the idea with his friend Paul Gemme from Our Piece of the Pie , Gemme saw an opportunity to get the teenagers in his environmental work-study program involved . “ These kids have the Connecticut River as their backyard , and they’ve never been to it , ” said Gemme .
“ We want the kids to get over their environmental deficit disorder , ” said Summer Sage , head of Integrated Learning .
The Hartford teens spent time at the Connecticut Science Center to become familiar with turtles . At Project Oceanology in Groton , they did research on a vessel . Turtles were brought in for the kids to dissect .
“ Dissecting a turtle was good practice , ” said Mattie Greaves , who plans to be a surgeon when she grows up .
“ I liked that we had to work as a team and rely on each other [ to make sure the project was a success ] , ” said Stephanie Colon .
Students were directly involved with brainstorming ideas for how to attach the Crittercam to the turtle , said Colon .
“ We had to use different chemicals in fresh water , ” explained Greaves . This was the first time the Crittercam has been used in a clear , fresh-water environment . The children made the papier-mâché that mounted the camera to the turtle .
Within two hours , the papier-mâché dissolves , and the camera “ pops off the turtle , ” said biologist Tobias Landberg , who has enjoyed working with the teens throughout the year.
Taking into account the biology and behavior of turtles was key to the success of the program . Researchers and the students used concrete blocks dragged on ropes to test how the papiermâché would hold up to the turtle’s movement .
“ They have large home ranges and move a lot , ” Landberg said . Counter to common belief , turtles can “ cruise , ” said Landberg . “ They are swimming , then walking in weeds and muck , moving up to a half kilometer in two hours . ”
Those working on the snapping turtle project hope to bring awareness to the important role the animal plays in the ecosystem . “ They help to control the Canadian geese population in this area , ” said Luginbuhl , “ which can help to prevent the spread of West Nile Virus . ” The turtles also eat sick and small fish , preventing over-breeding .
Luginbuhl said the plan is to have three deployments at Shenipsit , in twohour increments . The camera , which can record eight hours of video , would then be mailed to National Geographic in Washington , D . C . to be downloaded .
Marshall is planning to produce a segment on the turtles for National Geographic’s “ Wild Chronicles’’ on PBS television .
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