Wood turtles, or Glyptemys insculpta, are North America’s only semi-aquatic primary terrestrial. Donald Brown, research assistant professor in WVU's Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is leading a study that examines how oil and natural gas activity affects wood turtles. (WVU Photo/Donald Brown)

WVU researchers come out of their shells to help at-risk turtles

How oil and natural gas activity affects most animal species is still unknown, but a West Virginia University researcher is working to change that one turtle at a time.

Donald Brown, research assistant professor of wildlife resources in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is studying North America’s only semi-aquatic primary terrestrial and how it is affected by oil and natural gas activity.

The wood turtle, Glyptemys insculpta, is a stream-obligate species — overwintering in streams and using them throughout the year. Unlike most aquatic turtles, wood turtles are largely terrestrial during the summer months and can travel several miles from streams. The turtles are also candidates for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act, currently considered “Under Review” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

With a two-year grant from The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Brown, along with Ph.D. student Sara Crayton, will conduct research in the Allegheny National Forest to understand how wood turtles respond to extensive forest fragmentation for energy extraction and transportation.

The research findings will help inform best management practices throughout the turtles’ distribution area, which includes West Virginia, the northeastern United States and parts of Canada.

“Generally in this kind of research, we assume there is going to be a negative impact and we try to quantify what that impact is,” Brown said. “But wood turtles are an edge-associated species. They tend to use the edges of forests and openings, so oil and gas development could benefit the species.”

However, the changes to landscapes through oil and gas development that could benefit turtles may also aid their predators.

“When forests are cleared, it tends to bring in more mesopredators, like raccoons and skunks,” Brown said. “They’ll use those openings that are created as travel corridors and they may encounter wood turtles, which could lead to higher mortality rates for the turtles.”

To monitor this, he’ll use camera trapping in the Allegheny National Forest to understand how the mesopredator density, in conjunction with wood turtles, varies with fragmentation. While surveying populations in various levels of fragmentation, he is also radio tracking wood turtles to see how individuals respond to the changing landscape.

Much like a turtle shell, Brown’s research is multifaceted.

His graduate students in the Division of Wildlife and Fisheries, Jena Staggs, Ally Beard and Joel Mota, are conducting additional research in WVU’s Wildlife Conservation Lab to more accurately predict local wood turtle occurrence. They’ll look at how habitat characteristics influence the abundance of wood turtles in the Midwest, while standardizing population monitoring protocols used by state agencies.

Since 2016, Brown has been assisting the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources with the long-term monitoring of wood turtles in the state to keep track of the populations over time. The monitoring method used in West Virginia, though, is different than methods used in some other areas of the country.

His research will compare the fundamental aspects of each method to develop a single protocol that can be used from Minnesota to Maine. In addition to Brown’s team, research collaborators across eight states are contributing data to the project.

“I think it’s important for people to understand how natural resource extraction affects the natural world,” he said. “We’re trying to better understand what happens when we go in and fragment a forest for energy extraction.”

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