Tracking Turtles Through Telemetry

Spending eight weeks tracking turtles sounds like slow work. Chloe Whitten ’19 can tell you just how easily they can hide, but to gain better research she needed to find them.

In the sandy forests of the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y., eastern box turtles stealthily creep. Twenty turtles in this research haven have transmitters attached to their shells, and Chloe Whitten ’19 and her research partner had to find each one of them twice every week over the summer. Her antenna would hone in on an approximate location. So outfitted with a backpack, her antenna and some good walking shoes, Whitten put on the miles tracking down the small eastern box turtles.

“Ten of them really liked to move,” Whitten, a biology and environmental studies major, says. “We could spend three hours trying to find just one turtle.”

Whitten was one of 190 undergraduate interns at the research lab that houses thousands and knows she was fortunate to earn a spot at the prestigious national laboratory, which is run by the Department of Energy. She believes she got the position because she had prior undergraduate research working with Dr. Joseph Whittaker, associate professor of biology, on small mammal research on the prairie.

“I also had experience with radio telemetry,” Whitten says.

She helped Whittaker with his campus squirrel research. While she knew she would prefer to work with reptiles and amphibians, her small mammal research paid off by teaching her basic research skills. She was also fortunate her summer collecting data was the eighth year of data collection on the eastern box turtle, which has been declining in population.

Through the tracking of the turtles, Whitten and her partner were able to place GPS coordinates on each turtle’s location to determine over time the turtle’s home range. The hypothesis was that heavy rains or drought would increase or decrease the turtle’s home range. After eight weeks of tracking and analyzing data, and considering the previous seven years of data, Whitten wasn’t able to conclude that extreme moisture or lack of it caused the turtle’s home range to change. Even without publishable findings, Whitten says the experience was well worth the investment of time.

“Whether or not you find it was your variable or not, it is still important to do research,” Whitten says. “The experience is wonderful.” 

And Whitten reminds us that we all should care about these little creatures because they hold the answers to many biological questions.

“They are good bioindicators. If there is something wrong with the environment it will affect the turtles,” Whitten says. “They are good predictors of what’s going to happen.”