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A university, a small town, and the big effort to save the endangered northern map turtles

Jan 07, 2015 05:54PM ● Published by Kerigan Butt

Photo courtesy Towson University The northern map turtlePhoto courtesy Towson University Towson University professor Dr. Richard Seigel and a team of students have been working to save the endangered northern map turtle since 2008. Seigel is pictured here with Nicole Eller, a student who worked on the project..

By Steven Hoffman

Staff Writer

In 2008, Dr. Richard Seigel, a professor in Towson University’s Department of Biological Sciences, started studying the northern map turtle, an endangered species in Maryland, in its habitat along the Susquehanna River. Most of his research was centered near the town of Port Deposit. That work has now led to a successful collaboration between the university and a small Cecil County town. More on that collaboration later, but first an introduction to the northern map turtle, a shy reptile unaccustomed to having so many people care about it.

The northern map turtle is a relatively large aquatic turtle that is native to North America. It gets its name from the markings on the skin and carapace. The light markings resemble contour lines on a map, which explains the unusual name. These turtles inhabit ponds, rivers, and lakes and prefer large bodies of water and areas with fallen trees and other debris that they can use for basking in sunshine.

The turtles can be found from south Quebec and Ontario down to northern Vermont. Its range then extends northwest to the Great Lakes region, including southern Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota, southwest to the Appalachians, south to Kansas and parts of Georgia. The turtles can also be found in the Susquehanna River system in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and also in the Delaware River. There’s even a small population in Europe’s Czech Republic region, but mostly the turtles can be found in North America.

Northern map turtles are not federally endangered, Seigel explained, but are considered endangered in Maryland. Seigel explained that the study of the northern map turtles began when he was asked by the state’s Department of Natural Resources to conduct a status survey. He went out with his wife, Nadia, and son, Ben, for a six-week study of the turtles, hoping to find them along the Susquehanna.

“We found a nice concentration of the turtles,” Seigel said.

The discovery of the nesting map turtle population was a surprise considering all the development that has occurred in the area.

The initial findings led to more research. Seigel brought in a team of students and researchers to help study the turtle, its habitat, and its relationship to Port Deposit.

In 2009, Seigel brought in Teal Richards-Dimitrie, a Towson University graduate student who helped the professor lead a team of student researchers as they studied the turtle, its habitat, and its relationship to Port Deposit. Richards-Dimitrie also incorporated the work into her master’s thesis. 

Photo courtesy Towson University The partnership between Towson University and Port Deposit was formalized in May of 2013

The researchers watched and made notes about the turtles’ circumstances. They worked tirelessly to study and strengthen the turtle population near Port Deposit. The conservation efforts focused on making the area safer for the endangered turtles without negatively impacting the day-to-day lives of the townspeople.

Under different circumstances, the leaders and residents of a town might not be receptive to outsiders who want to come in and protect an endangered species. There have been many cases where a community becomes suspicious or mistrusts the efforts of outsiders because residents perceive that there is a threat to their way of life. There is often a concern that conservation efforts will threaten future development.

According to Seigel, “the people in Port Deposit just didn’t have that view. They had a forward-looking view of what this would mean.”

Instead of conflict, there was collaboration. And now, years later, the partnership between a university and a town is still growing and evolving. The symbol of the partnership is the shy northern map turtle.

“In size and scope, I think this is a unique partnership,” explained Kelsey Beckett, a program manager for Towson University’s Office of External Affairs. She facilitates collaboration between the university and external organizations to find solutions to community issues.

According to Beckett, as Dr. Seigel and the researchers began to work more closely with officials from Port Deposit, the professor looked for ways to expand the university’s involvement with the partnership. He went to the Division of Innovation and Applied Research for help formalizing the partnership, assisting in publicizing some of the activities in the town, and providing some overall support. Towson University sponsored the first annual Port Deposit Food and Wine Festival and assisted the town with getting the word out about the festival.

Beckett added that several university entities, including the Fisher College of Science and Mathematics, the University Relations office, and the President’s Office all worked with Port Deposit officials as the partnership expanded.

The partnership between Towson University and Port Deposit was formalized in May of 2013 when university president Maravene Loeschke and Port Deposit mayor Wayne Tome signed a memorandum of understanding.

Port Deposit is looking to ecotourism as a way to drive economic growth and protect the turtle at the same time. The town adopted the northern map turtle as its mascot, and a local musician even wrote a song about the turtle.

Richards-Dimitrie commented about the level of support that the university’s project had received from the town.

“The people of Port Deposit have been so supportive from the very beginning,” she said. “I would tell one person about something we were doing, and the next thing I knew everyone in town was talking about it and asking how they could help. It’s incredible that this project has come this far and there is so much that can be done now with this type of partnership and this much support.”

Many people with ties to Port Deposit recognized the opportunities that the partnership would create. Linda Read and her husband, David, have been advocates of the project. Linda has even volunteered her services, working on behalf of the town as a project manager for the project.

“Because Port Deposit is a small community,” she said, “we don’t have the ability to put the boots on the ground that are needed to move some of our projects forward. With the partnership between the town and Towson University, the future is a lot brighter for us on Main Street.” 

Photo courtesy Towson University Part of the project is researching how the current conditions of the Susquehanna River impact the turtles. Ryan McGehee was one of the students who took part in the research.

One aspect of the partnership that has a lot of people excited is the rehabilitation of the historic Port Deposit Gas House. The building will serve two purposes: the first floor will be a visitors’ center with information and exhibits about the town and the northern map turtle. The second floor will be a research space for Towson University students who are working on the project.

Like David and Linda Read, Louise Land has been an advocate for the partnership. She said that there has been a great deal of support in the effort to renovate the Port Deposit Gas House, and once the renovation is complete the university will continue to provide Port Deposit with expertise and resources to help it become an eco-tourism destination in the near future.

Port Deposit also received help with drafting an economic development plan, which means that benefits of the partnership could continue well into the future.

Everyone involved hopes that the collaboration evolves.

“This is more of an ongoing partnership,” Beckett said. “We’re always looking for ways to expand it.”

The partnership has already produced real benefits for Towson University students who get to do real scientific work on a project in the field. It is an invaluable learning experience. There are currently 11 different students working on the project, and the work that they are doing will look very good on their résumés.

“This is exactly what the students need,” Seigel said. “This kind of work is the difference between getting a job or getting into graduate school—or not.”

This conservation work has been funded by a growing number of sources including the Exelon Nuclear Corporation, the Maryland State Highway Administration, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and others. The fact that the town and the university are collaborating helps secure funding.

The northern map turtles will remain at the heart of this partnership.

Since the work began, Towson University has captured 162 map turtles. Each one was given an individual mark so that movement data could be collected.

Seigel said that the research has produced results that will be helpful in analyzing the status of the turtles and will lead to recommendations for changes that can be made to improve the conditions for the turtles. Shoreline restoration will ensure that the turtles have more options to enter and exit the water. A wildlife exclusion fence will allow the turtles to access their nets without crossing parking lots or roads. The research team wants to find a way to stop the loss of basking sites in and around the Susquehanna River. Constant changes in water level caused by the nearby Conowingo Dam and hydroelectric plant prevent the turtles from accessing the many boulders in the river that have traditionally served as basking sites. To solve this problem, Seigel and his team are developing floating platforms that will rise and fall with the water level.

“We’ve learned a lot so far,” Seigel said. “The partnership has been one of the pleasant components of what we’ve done out there. Everyone is working together for a common goal and realizing that you can have an endangered species and commerce and development and tourism all at once.”

To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email editor@chestercounty.com.

Help save the northern map turtle

While Port Deposit and other partners have been supportive of the effort, there is still a need for additional funding to pay for the shoreline restoration, construction of the wildlife exclusion fence, and to establish the combined research facility and ecotourism center. A tax-deductible contribution can be made at the following: https://towson.givecorps.com/projects/761-research-enrichment-map-turtle-project.


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