A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

New Research Coming out of Its Shell

By Mariam Aburdeineh, BA ’13 on September 7, 2021


For decades, research on wood turtles—a threatened reptile species native to North America—has focused on trying to better understand and protect their populations. But there’s one area of wood turtle research that’s been lacking. In spring, a team from George Mason University, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), and the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation (SMSC) headed to the streams to fix that.

“The assumption with animals that have a long life history, like turtles do, is that adult survival is really the most important thing to focus on for conservation,” says J. Hunter VanDoren, a Mason environmental science and policy master’s student and graduate fellow with SCBI. “But you can’t leave out juveniles, and they have largely been left out of the literature.”

VanDoren, a Front Royal native who interned with SCBI before becoming a graduate fellow, is part of a team headed by Mason alumnus and Smithsonian researcher Tom Akre, Ph.D. Environmental Science and Public Policy ’03, who’s been working with threatened turtles for more than 20 years.

Virginia wood turtle habitat consists of both upland protected forest regions and lowland mixed agricultural areas. Surprisingly, Akre’s data has shown juvenile recruitment to be low at protected upland sites, despite reproductive rates remaining high and the land being preserved. The team’s research is of particular importance to understanding why. It is also the final piece needed to conduct integrated population modeling and inform a population viability analysis.

To understand the factors involved and how juveniles fare in both habitats, VanDoren put radio transmitters on the young turtles (primarily identifiable by the length of their shell) and tracked them to estimate their known fate (an estimation of survival probability).

Each week, VanDoren checked on the turtles, collecting data on their status, survival, and location, as well as qualitative habitat data. Later, he will analyze the results in the lab.

The goal was to track 30 turtles at each site, but that number was dependent on how many juveniles could be captured and tracked, VanDoren says, who adds that part of the reason juvenile research is limited is because the individual turtles are elusive and difficult to study.

“Juveniles are the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding their life history, how populations are reacting to land use change, and all the threats they face from habitat loss and fragmentation, road mortality, and illegal collection for the pet trade,” says Jessica Meck, Turtle Conservation Ecology project manager. “The pieces already in place are important for conservation of the species…but the missing data on juvenile survival is particularly crucial for informing conservation in Virginia.”

In addition to their hands-on research, Meck and VanDoren have been mentoring an undergraduate SMSC student each semester. These undergraduates learn experientially by supporting the team in the field and lab.

Teaching the future generation of conservationists is of critical importance, Meck says, adding that the applied conservation experience is rewarding for both mentor and mentee.

As a student, VanDoren agrees. “Something I didn’t fully grasp as an undergraduate was just how important the experience itself is,” he says. “It’s the experience that develops you as a scientist and allows you to fully understand what it is you’re doing and why.”


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