The tiny softshell turtles Chris Manis holds up don’t look very unusual or important.
But Manis, a biology instructor at Dalton State College, says they tell us quite a bit about the water in the ponds at Lakeshore Park.
“These turtles can breath through their skin and through their shell tissue, so they are very sensitive to water conditions,” he said. “Having these in the water indicates the water must be fairly clean.”
Students and faculty from Dalton State College have just completed two weeks of studying the turtles at Lakeshore.
“We want to see how many species we have, what the population of each species is. We’d love to capture every single turtle here and give it a unique mark, measure it, weigh it, release it and hope that we capture it again in the future,” Manis said.
Manis said the diversity and size of the turtle population reflects the overall health of the ponds and the surrounding wetlands.
“They are particularly long lived. I’m sure that some of the animals we have picked up predate me by decades. They can give you an idea of the resources that are here now, that have been here in the past,” he said. “The more species we have, the more diverse the habitat is because each one fits into a different niche.”
This is year two of the study.
“It could take us five or more years to wrap our heads around what’s going on here,” he said.
Manis said the biggest surprise so far has been the discovery of Alabama map turtles at Lakeshore.
“We’ve only seen them from a distance. They won’t come to traps. They are notorious for that,” he said.
They have also found Eastern river cooters.
“They are herbivores. There’s no vegetation here, so they are probably living on algae alone, maybe grass clippings as well,” Manis said.
But the river cooter and the map turtle are riverine species. So how did they end up at Lakeshore Park?
“This was once part of a much larger wetlands that was probably even more tied into local creeks and stream. These populations have probably been living, and apparently thriving, here for decades,” Manis said.
Cris Shelton, a biology student at Dalton State College, said he was looking to do research and he jumped at the chance to help conduct the study.
“I’ve always had an interest in reptiles. I’ve worked with them in the past. I’ve also had an interest in arthropods,” he said. “I want to go on to graduate school after I finish my degree. This program looked like it would be good experience and something interesting to do.”
The researchers ultimately hope to be able to provide some suggestions to the Dalton Parks and Recreation Department, which manages Lakeshore Park, on how to protect the ponds and wetlands and make them a more livable place for turtles and other wildlife.
“If we can find a way to better protect all of these species I think it will also make it a better place for people to come and enjoy themselves,” Shelton said.