How to track turtles for 3 months in Belize. Fish Heads in the Jungle, Flooded Ziplines and Tons of Mud Slinging

Have you ever been out at your local park and you see some turtles? Maybe they were basking on some logs, or possibly swimming around with their head poking out of the water. Have you ever wondered what its like to be one of those turtles?

Well, that’s what I was wondering. From May until August of this year I was in the Jungles of Belize (Followers of my Instagram probably know that pretty well. Followers of my blog might have forgotten I exist). As part of an undergraduate internship, I spent 3 months living at the fantastic Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society (T.R.E.E.S.) Research Station located in the gorgeous Mayan Mountains of Belize. A large part of my internship was spent tracking these lovely little creatures pictured below:

This is a White Lipped Mud Turtle (Kinosternon leucostomum) and might have noticed that big gray glob with a wire attached to the side of his shell. That’s what we call a Radio Transmitter. Now, ecologists have used these guys for years in order to track the movements and behavior of a variety of species of animals worldwide. Everything from deer and iguanas, down to even, seriously, kissing bugs.  These devices work pretty simply.  Essentially the device on the turtle is glued on and positioned in a way that reduces the impact it has on the turtles daily life. The transmitter operates for several months emitting a frequency that we can pick up with our radio receiver. In order to better pick up that signal, we use an antenna that boosts the signal and allows us to a position where the turtles are at through triangulation. After spending some time messing with the gain and volume we are able to locate about 10 turtles in a 3 hours period.

Now, it may sound a bit easy. You just turn on the receiver, point the antennae and walk that direction. Simple right?

 

Oh, how wrong you are.

 

First, we need to find the turtles to actually put these transmitters on. For weeks we set out every night trying to find turtles by digger through the leaves and dredging up and down the creek. On some occasions, we carried discarded fish heads to bait turtle traps. Do you know how nervewracking it is walking through the jungle at night with a dim headlight and a handful of fish heads knowing that the night before had some of the greatest big cat activity ever seen on the property? Yea. I jumped once or twice. But I prevailed. FOR SCIENCE!!!!

Once we found 10 turtles of a suitable size we fixed the receivers and let them go where we found them. Then all we had to do was track them! Well… That was tricky at first. You see….. Turtles move. And when they move, we aren’t entirely sure where they go. You would think they go downstream because its easiest right? Wrong again budding scientist. Often, these turtles would move from our Swimming Hole ( A fantastic location for us to access) and go nearly a kilometer upstream to our other Swimming Hole. This required us to go along a windy up and down trail or make a river crossing. And here’s the kicker. We don’t know if they are at that location until we get pretty much there. Yes, our antennae lets us pick up signals from a couple of kilometers away, but thats with ideal conditions. This swimming hole is upstream a curvy rive, and most of the time the turtles hunker down under a boulder or in the leaf litter, obscuring the signal.

And even if everything is working correctly, you may have been walking the wrong direction thanks to a little phenomenon known as bounce back. Those signals that the transmitter produces are not perfect. In fact, they often bounce off of rocks, hill faces, large trees etc. etc. There were one too many times that I walked straight into a vertical rock face because the signal was pointing me there. When in reality the signal was coming from directly behind me.

AND! To top it all off. This river floods. And little floods that might make my feet wet. Im talking about Massive 45 cm in 30 minutes floods. Floods that carry entire trees downstream and destroy our bridges. Now how do you track turtles when its impossible to cross without drowning yourself?

A Zipline ladies and Gentlemen.

Thats right! We built a zip line specifically so we could track turtles during floods! In the video below I show you our system and what a true flood looks like.

Now. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. There are loads of obstacles that come with field biology. It is a mentally, physically, and emotionally draining task. The challenges you face are difficult to overcome.  And that is exactly why I love doing it. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than completing a hard days work in the field. When I get back, the coffee is stronger, the beer is colder, and the food is more nourishing. Then, when you start to analyze the data, write the paper, or come up with some amazing results you actually get to see what your hard work and dedication are going towards.

That is why I will always love field biology.

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Do you want to get involved at T.R.E.E.S.? They are currently accepting interns for 2019, and there’s a good chance I’ll be there too! Follow this link for more information about their internships.

Do you want help with your conservation, sustainability, or nature-focused endeavor? I offer Affordable Social Media and Brand Consulting for select accounts. Send me an email at dilljone96@gmail.com for inquiries.

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