On Monday, May 22, I woke up deep in the Texas Hill country to participate in an activity that most people might think is, well, odd. I met up with a group of very specialized “nerds” and citizen scientists from all over the country at an unusual site--the County Line barbeque restaurant in Austin. Why this location? The proprietors are passionate about helping to save turtles and our unique group began that morning and worked until early evening for the next two days surveying every turtle we possibly could that lives in Bull Creek, right behind the restaurant.
The North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG), part of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), has been monitoring turtle populations at 13 different protected sites in four states since 1999. Our survey was only the second time NAFTRG has studied this turtle population in this waterway. For decades, hundreds of turtles have congregated at the dock of this restaurant where patrons have fed them. I learned that the turtles were there even before the restaurant was built. When the property contained rental cabins, tourists would feed the turtles from the boat docks. With the passion and generosity of the restaurant’s owners and managers, and the large numbers of turtles present, I’m sure our survey won't be the last.
This timing of the trip was extra special for our group because it coincided with World Turtle Day, a holiday that we turtle lovers hold especially close to our hearts. The restaurant partnered with Hops and Grain Brewery to throw a huge event to help raise money for TSA and spread awareness of the plight of turtles around the world. Along with our regular duties of collecting, measuring and marking turtles, NAFTRG was on-hand to present some unique species--from butt-breathing turtles to imbibing adults--and to inspire a passion for wildlife in the next generation. We also found a large common snapping turtle and a Guadalupe spiny softshell turtle, which we measured, tagged and released in front of the amazed crowd.
Turtle populations all over the world are declining due to overharvesting for the pet and food trades, habitat fragmentation and pollution. Even in the United States, turtles are starting to disappear from areas where they were once plentiful. NAFTRG’s goal is to study the populations of turtles in protected waterways for long periods of time to determine how turtles in the U.S. are responding to ever-increasing anthropogenic pressures (human impact on the environment).
Fortunately, our Zoo is deeply involved with conserving the world's turtles and tortoises. Along with offering financial support to TSA, which is one of the Zoo’s conservation legacy partners, we also house and breed 12 species of turtles and tortoises that are part of TSA programs. To me, the most rewarding way that the Zoo helps conserve turtles is how staff members are encouraged to pursue their passions and volunteer in the field to study these amazing creatures.
So, now you know how drinking beer can help save a turtle!
--by Brett Bartek, animal caretaker/Children’s Zoo