Biotelemetry pioneer Ed Standora, professor of biology, has been named principal investigator of the first behavioral research ever conducted on turtles in the binational Niagara River. Kenneth Roblee, senior wildlife biologist at the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Buffalo office, is co-principal investigator.
The project, sponsored by the New York Power Authority (NYPA) and funded by its Habitat Enhancement and Restoration Fund for $365,000 for two-and-a-half years, is part of NYPA’s Niagara Power Project relicensing implementation.
“No one has ever done any behavioral or tracking studies of turtles in the Niagara River,” said Standora, who has been studying turtles in Central America and along the Mid-Atlantic States for decades. With the assistance of Brian Haas and Jeremy Henderson, both of whom are pursuing master’s degrees in biology at Buffalo State, Standora is putting the pieces in place so the project can begin as soon as the weather breaks.
Standora’s turtle research is only part of his expertise. He started his career developing a biotelemetry system to study sharks off the California coast in the late 1960s. Biotelemetry is the use of technology to collect information about animals in their natural habitats.
The two species of interest in this project are the common map turtle (Graptemys geographica) and the eastern spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera). “The first step of the project will be to catch 20 turtles of each species,” said Standora, “so that’s the first thing Brian and Jeremy will do this spring.”
The next step will be tagging each turtle with a radio transmitter, a sonic transmitter, and a data logger. “The equipment doesn’t affect the turtles’ mobility any more than a pair of shoes affects ours,” said Standora. “It will be less than five percent of their body weight.”
The radio transmitter will enable the research team to monitor the turtles above water; the sonic transmitter will emit a signal that can be detected underwater, and the data logger, a conical device that’s about half the size of the tip of a pinkie finger, will record depth and water temperature every minute. In addition to actively tracking the animals by boat, there will also be remote receiving stations recording turtle activity at constriction points in the Niagara River around Grand Island and ending at the Great Lakes Center Field Station at the mouth of Lake Erie.
The study will provide a population count of both species; information about their movement in the Niagara River and Lake Erie; and information about their life cycle. “We’ll find out where they nest, where they bask, and where they brumate,” said Standora. “They have to bask to collect energy from sunlight to digest their food. Brumation is the reptile version of hibernation in mammals.” The study will also provide information about the turtles’ behavior in the winter.
Both Haas and Henderson will tag the turtles, locate them through the use of telemetric devices, snorkel to retrieve them to download the data logger information, and release them. Haas said, “I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, so this project is very exciting.” Henderson has enjoyed “herping”—looking for snakes and other reptiles—since he was a little boy. Both share Standora’s excitement about the use of biotelemetry, because it allows them to learn how animals behave in their native habitats.
For this team, spring can’t come soon enough.