New research project collecting data with goal of protecting turtles at Eagle Marsh in southwest Fort Wayne

Betsy Yankowiak, director of preserves and programs at Little River Wetlands Project, hold two Blanding's turtles found during the Indiana Academy of Science's BioBlitz survey in 2014 at Eagle Marsh in southwest Fort Wayne. The turtles are an endangered species in Indiana and in the rest of the states where they live. (Courtesy of Mark Jordan)
This is a close-up photo of a Blanding's turtle found in northern Indiana. Blanding's turtles are an endangered species in Indiana and throughout its range in the upper Midwest and northeastern United States. (Courtesy of Jillian Josimovich)

A new research project could offer insights that may protect turtle populations at Eagle Marsh, especially those reptiles who feel the need to cross busy Engle Road to find a good place to lay eggs.

The project, which is expected to start next week and continue through July, represents a partnership between the Environmental Resources Center at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne and the Little River Wetlands Project, which owns Eagle Marsh and other nature preserves.

“We are going to try to understand what species are there, where they are nesting and where they are trying to cross roads, particularly Engle Road,” said IPFW Associate Professor Mark Jordan, who is leading the project.

Jordan and Bruce Kingsbury, a professor of biology, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the director of IPFW’s Environmental Resources Center, are funding the research this summer largely with a grant they applied for and received from the IPFW College of Arts and Sciences’ START program, Jordan said. He hopes to find additional funding to continue the project in future years.

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The START grant program funds projects that involve students in research and include community outreach and working with partner organizations in the area, Jordan said.

Little River Wetlands Project wants to learn more about how to protect the turtles at Eagle Marsh and how it can involve the public in doing so, said Besty Yankowiak, the nonprofit organization’s director of preserves and programs.

THE INSPIRATION

Her goals and the research project are inspired in part by the Indiana Academy of Science BioBlitz held at Eagle Marsh in 2014, Yankowiak and Jordan said. A number of scientists and researchers descended on the preserve for a weekend to document its plant and animal life.

During that event, they found two Blanding’s turtles, which are an endangered species in Indiana and had not been reported in the Fort Wayne area since the 1970s, Jordan said. They also found painted turtles, snapping turtles, softshell turtles and musk turtles.

Blanding’s turtles are an endangered species in every state where they live, which includes the Chicago area, Wisconsin and the northeastern United States, Yankowiak said. The turtle’s population has declined due to habitat loss and being killed while crossing roads, she said.

Blanding’s turtles will walk miles to find habitat, a mate or a nesting area, she added.

GOOD TIMING

Turtles dig nests in which to lay eggs mainly in May and June, Jordan said, which makes this a good time to start the research project.

Female turtles look for sandy soil mixed with organic material, which sometimes leads them to roadsides and other places where the soil has been disturbed, he said.

Two IPFW students will be working on the research project at Eagle Marsh, Jordan said. He hopes they can organize a group of volunteers to walk the marsh and report turtle sightings and locations.

“There is growing interest in the scientific community in trying to engage citizens in data collection that is beyond what a research group can do,” Jordan said.

Getting involved in a hands-on way also helps volunteers learn to value a resource and to understand the science better, he said.

SEEKING SOLUTIONS

Once local researchers have more information about the turtle population at Eagle Marsh and where the reptiles are nesting, researchers can begin designing ways to help the reptiles, Jordan said.

Along with being hit by vehicles while crossing Engle Road, turtles at Eagle Marsh face a severe problem with raccoons, skunks and possums digging up turtle nests and eating the eggs, he and Yankowiak said.

The predation rate on turtle eggs is almost 100 percent of the total number laid, Yankowiak said.

Some possible options to help turtles could include installing good nesting soil on marsh property so turtles don’t have to cross Engle Road, Jordan said. Other ideas include creating a nesting island and installing an electric fence around nesting areas.

Turtles would be able to crawl under the electric fence, but it would prevent raccoons and other mammals from raiding the turtle nests.

If they can determine where turtles typically cross Engle Road, they possibly can try to have a drain pipe installed under the road so turtles could cross through the pipe instead of on the road, Yankowiak said.

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