At 7:30 a.m. in late July, we arrive at the boat launch east of Billings. Student and research assistant Andrhea Massey sits in the river boat provided by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to begin a day of checking turtle hoops on the Yellowstone River. Massey is from Texas but came to Montana to follow her dream of becoming a biologist. Rocky Mountain College was attractive to her because she would get to conduct research as an undergraduate, which isn’t very common. She said she had her heart set on going to college in Montana since she was 13.
This is the first turtle hoop we check that morning. A spiny softshell turtle grips the net in the hoop set by Ostovar and his students two days earlier. Montana populations of the spiny softshell are poorly understood, making any type of management of the species extremely difficult.
Ostovar lifts the turtle hoop out of the water. The traps are baited with cut-up fish. Spiny softshell turtles are mainly carnivorous and they eat any aquatic life small enough to capture, including crayfish, insects, fish and even aquatic plants. They search for food actively or bury themselves in the sand or mud, waiting for prey to swim by.
Massey carefully removes a female spiny softshell turtle from the trap. She is careful to hold the turtle farther back back on its shell, since they have long, flexible necks and are able to reach in any direction and bite.
Massey carries the turtle toward a table. Because it was early in the morning, the turtle was not moving very fast. Spiny softshell turtles are diurnal reptiles, spending most of the day sunning themselves on logs and river banks and foraging for food. If disturbed, they will quickly retreat into the water.
Ostovar draws one to two CCs of blood with a 22-gauge needle from a vein in its tail. These turtles are long-lived although no one really knows exactly how long they can live in the wild. Because they they are long-lived they accumulate heavy metals in their system. The collected blood samples will be analyzed at the biogeochemistry lab of the University of Montana in Missoula. They are tested for six different kinds of metals, but Ostovar is most interested in mercury and lead. The hope is that the information gathered from the blood work will help policy makers understand the heavy metal contaminants in water bodies in the Yellowstone watershed and help establish a baseline of heavy metal levels in the turtles in order to document changes in exposure related to industrial activity or mining.
A male and female spiny softshell turtle are measured side by side. The males are smaller and their shells have a rough texture with the small dots. In mature males, the shell is like sandpaper, and marked with small dark spots or circles. The tail is thick and long. Andhrea measures the width and length of the carapace, which is the scientific term for a turtle’s shell.
The female turtle reaches back to try to bite Ostovar as he explains the differences between the male and female turtles. The females can be very aggressive, and since the males are markedly smaller it is believed they tend to avoid females unless it is breeding season.
Ostovar inserts a PIT tag into the loose skin near the turtle’s back leg. PIT stands for Passive Integrated Transponder, and they are injected under the skin of the turtle. The PIT tag is about the size of a grain of rice and helps researchers track the turtle. PIT-tagged animals that are recaptured provide valuable information on growth rate and change in location since previous captures and is an effective way to determine survival and other demographic traits of populations.
Ostovar points out damage on one of the spiny softshell turtle’s shell. They bury themselves in the mud during the winter and Ostovar says that it is a possibility that this particular turtle may have not buried itself deeply enough, exposing its shell, feet and tail to frigid temperatures causing frostbite.
In addition to the PIT tag, the team also secures an external tag as a redundancy method in case the PIT tag fails. The metal tag is also helpful in case someone sees the turtle or happens to accidentally catch the turtle. Aponte explained later that external metal tags have a unique ID number and contact information so the team at Rocky Mountain College can be contacted.
The snout of a spiny softshell turtle is tubular, with a ridge along the inner margin of each nostril, which allows them to remain beneath the surface with just the snout exposed. They can breathe two different ways, either through their nose using their long neck as a "snorkel” or by absorbing dissolved oxygen through their skin, which allows them to remain under water for long periods of time.
On the second field day I attended in August, Ostovar brought along a students from his Wildlife Management and Conservation class. They are walking down to a prairie stream to check a turtle hoop they had set two days earlier. On this day the team was hoping to catch snapping turtles, since they are mostly found on tributaries to the Yellowstone and nearby ponds.
Students from Ostovar’s Wildlife Management and Conservation class watch as the turtle hoop is removed from the creek. Ostovar knows the snapping turtles are very sensitive to habitat fragmentation such as roads and housing subdivisions.
Aponte shows the students how to remove the snapping turtle from the turtle hoop so they don’t get bitten. The snapping turtle can easily bite off a finger so he tells the students to be extremely careful. Aponte believes reptiles and amphibians are understudied and wants to bring more attention to them and their role in the ecosystem.
This snapping turtle is fairly large and Ostovar, Massey and Aponte are excited because she is a female. They don’t often catch females. Massey explains that studies done in Canada on snapping turtles have shown an increase of even just 1 percent in the mortality rate of nesting female snapping turtles will decrease the population by half in less than 20 years. Massey’s research focus is looking at populations of snapping turtles specifically in tributaries of the Yellowstone. She is really interested in finding out their preferred habitat and how habitat fragmentation impacts their population.
Ostovar explains the plight of the snapping turtle to his students. The turtles reproduce very slowly and so if you lose a female it has a huge impact of the larger population. He explains that the females are more prone to mortality because they roam around looking for nesting places, which are often times near roads because there is gravel. The females often get run over by vehicles. Also, their nesting spots are often in agricultural fields and so the eggs can get plowed up or run over fairly easily.
Massey turns the snapping turtle over to show the students the bottom shell, also called the plastron. Massey is able to tell the turtle is a female almost immediately because female shells are a little more domed than the males and they also have smaller tails. Massey hopes her research will be used to protect nesting sites, improve wildlife road crossings and understand habitat use. She thinks that they’ve already made an impact just from talking to so many people and landowners about their project, especially since many people didn't even know that there were snapping turtles in Montana. She doesn’t want people to be afraid of them.
Many private landowners around Billings have allowed access to their land to study the turtles, and Ostovar is grateful for their interest and support. These landowners northeast of Billings brought their grandkids down to see the snapping turtle that was caught on their property.
Because the shell of the snapping turtle is so hard, there is no way to attach a metal tag on the shell like the one used on the spiny softshell turtle. Aponte uses a dremel tool to file the shell. If they ever recapture this particular turtle, they will know from the marks that she is a recapture and they will be able to identify her in their records. This does not hurt the turtle in any way.
Students use a wire brush and water to clean the shell and prepare it for the placement of a telemetry unit that will be used to track her location. They have to push firmly down on the shell to keep the turtle still.
Ostovar, with help from his students, begins the tedious work of gluing a telemetry unit on the shell. They are using radio telemetry tags to track the movements to better understand their habitat use and distribution. This is the first radio telemetry study on snapping turtles in Montana.
Ostovar and students use epoxy to glue small metal tubes to the turtle’s shell. They use masking tape to prevent the epoxy from seeping into the shell’s suture lines (the spaces between the scutes, as the distinct plates on a shell are called) to prevent any deformity of the shell. The process is challenging because the epoxy can dry at different rates depending on wind speed, outside temperature and other factors.
The radio telemetry unit is glued on to the shell and the antenna is threaded through the metal tubes. They need to make sure the antenna is secured close to the shell so it doesn’t get caught on rocks and other debris in the creek. The blue bag is used to cover her face and keep her calm.
It takes the epoxy a couple of hours to dry completely, so for the next couple of hours the turtle will remain with the students in the blue bag. After the epoxy is dry, she will be returned to the exact place she was found.
Aponte holds up a small male snapping turtle. This particular turtle will not be tracked with telemetry but will have a PIT tag placed under its skin and blood drawn. Ostovar hopes in the future they will be able to do a DNA analysis to see how the different populations of snapping turtles are connected.
The small male snapping turtle dips into the water after being processed.
Six years ago, during a walk along the Yellowstone River, I caught a glimpse of something I had never seen before. It was obviously a turtle, but with a shell unlike any I had ever seen before — a shell that looked like a pancake.
One second this beautiful creature was there, sunning itself on a muddy beach, and then the next all I saw were ripples where it slid into the water to escape me. I found out later it was a spiny softshell turtle – a shy, elusive reptile that is found in the river systems of southeast Montana and about which wildlife biologists know little.
Kayhan Ostovar, an associate professor of environmental science and fish and wildlife conservation at Rocky Mountain College, and his students are trying to do something about that.
After my first encounter with the softshell turtle I became interested in learning more. In truth, it became something of an obsession. When I found out about the research Ostovar was leading, I jumped at the chance to tag along on one of his field research days; I wanted to see a spiny softshell turtle close up.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that I would be able to go on two trips; one to find the spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera) and one to find the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), both species of concern in Montana. I joined Ostovar and two of his students who serve as his lead research assistants, Andhrea Massey and Gabriel Aponte, in the field while they checked turtle traps they set along the Yellowstone River and surrounding prairie streams.
Massey and Aponte told me that not much is known about either species, but they are working to change that. Ostovar and his students have become the leading turtle experts in the state. They are working to collect data that no one has collected before. Prior to their research, in fact, there was no good data on these turtles. So there has been no way of knowing how things like roads, subdivisions, poor water quality or even incidents like the Yellowstone oil spill have affected the species.
Three years ago, Ostovar set out to change that. He began a formal research project with the support of the Yellowstone River Research Center (YRRC) at Rocky Mountain College, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and numerous local foundations and businesses.
Ostovar and his students are trying to answer some basic question regarding the spiny softshell and snapping turtle populations on the Musselshell, Clarks Fork, Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers and surrounding prairie streams:
♦ What are the populations along the Yellowstone River and how might climate change affect their demographics and continued survival?
♦ How does the fragmentation of habitat impact their population?
♦ What are the heavy metal contaminant loads and are there differences in these levels based on where the turtles live?
♦ What factors might be affecting the health of the species, including instream flow, water quality, and invasive plant species on nesting beaches?
Ostovar, Massey and Aponte hope the research will help educate people about the presence and importance of these turtles and they hope that people in Billings and surrounding community will begin to watch out for snapping turtles and spiny softshell turtles.
“Let us know where and when you see them,” Ostovar said. “And if you find them, don’t move them to places where you think they should be. Just let them be.”
I was so excited to be able to take photos of these amazing creatures and the students from Rocky Mountain College. This photo essay will take you through both field days, and the captions will explain the research they are doing in more detail.
And, if you see a spiny softshell or snapping turtle, please consider contacting Ostovar and his students at Rocky Mountain College. You can call Ostovar at 657-1175 or write to him at email@example.com.
Alexis Bonogofsky is a fourth-generation Montanan, goat and sheep rancher, freelance photographer and writer who lives and works along the Yellowstone River near Billings. She managed the Tribal Lands Partnerships Program for the National Wildlife Federation for 10 years. You can see more of her photos atbonogofsky.smugmug.com. And do check out her blog, East of Billings.