Tuesday, August 17, 2010


How is it that something I feel like I did yesterday is already two weeks ago? Oh well, better late than never I guess.
I have done various posts about the Blanding's Turtle conservation work I do. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a conference devoted solely to this species. As with any group work focusing on an endangered species you tend to swing between being wildly inspired to keep on doing what your doing and being hugely depressed at the seemingly impossible odds you seem to face to preserve this species.
I won't bore everyone with an account of the numerous lectures, I'll just skip right to the fun stuff - the field trips. On the first day we visited Nachusa Grasslands. This is a huge, beautiful rolling expanse of restored prairie.

There have been numerous reptile species sighted here but we were on the lookout for one particularly elusive little gem, the Ornate Box Turtle.

And, as you can see, we were lucky. This delightful little creature is listed as threatened in Illinois so it really was a privilege to be able to see one in it's natural environment.

This little female was carefully examined and aged at approximately six or seven years old. When we had all admired her she was replaced gently back into the clump of grass where we had found her.

Our second field trip, at the end of the conference was to the Richardson Wildlife Foundation. This is a piece of land that has been bought up over several years by a private individual.

It was initially intended to be a private hunting area but over time the owner came back from the dark side and now focuses on conservation of the species on his land and restoration of the native habitat.

There have been a few sightings in recent years of Blanding's Turtles on this land so a couple of days before we arrived the resident ecologist had been kind enough to set up a series of turtle traps in the various wetland areas.

These are fairly basic, humane contraptions that are anchored semi-submerged and baited with tinned sardines (!) and are extremely effective. Of course they are also totally indiscriminate and will lure in anything with a taste for sardines! - like gargantuan catfish

Or very cranky Snapping Turtles

But most commonly, Painted Turtles

In fact one trap in particular held enough Painted Turtles that we all got one for our group photo!

One Snapping Turtle had managed to force its way out through the side of one of the traps and get stuck so by the time we got it, it was having a serious sense of humour failure!

And was just about ready to amputate any fingers that got too close

We did manage to extricate it without anyone loosing any digits though

When we released it, it did stay around long enough to pose for the cameras!

Eventually our patience was rewarded and the real stars of the show put in an appearance.

Two mature, relatively unmarked female Blanding's Turtles.

As these were previously unrecorded individuals the first priority was to get a DNA sample from each of them so a small amount of blood was drawn from each turtle. One of the problems of working with endangered species is very often with a greatly reduced population comes the inevitable issue of a lack of genetic diversity so it is important that a genetic record of every known individual is kept.

As neither of the turtles were equipped with radio transmitters we also needed a record of identity for each of them. The most effective way of doing this is to take a photograph of the plastron.

Then, just because they are so beautiful we took a picture of their more photogenic angle!

Then we released them back in the same spot from were they came and watched them quickly slip below the waters surface and go back to their precarious existence.
I really do hope that this charming and elusive creature will be around the Midwest for a very long time to come.
I came away from the conference with a very long 'to do' list and the cautious hope that maybe we can save this beautiful turtle species.

Photo Credits - CJT & J Forberg

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


One of the things that really captivated me on our trip to Morocco was the incredible detail on every surface of so many of the buildings, whether it be mosaic, carved stone or wood or metalwork. These photos really don't need any words so I'll just say, they all were taken from the exterior of one building, the Hassan II Grand Mosque in Casablanca.

Photo Credits - CJT

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Usually in the summer we have a three day camping trip together as a Department, which we combine with collecting specimens to replenish our living collections. Unfortunately this year, everyone's schedules were so crazy that we were never able to find a three day gap that suited all of us. I sent a couple of my staff out on a one day collecting trip, mainly to collect native fish species for our Riverworks Exhibit but that was about all we had done in the way of getting out in the field.
Last week we finally managed to get our entire Department together for a quick trip to Indiana Dunes State Park. As if to continue the theme from last years trips, the day started with dark skies, thunder, lightening and heavy rain. We all studied the weather sites closely and determined that at the time we had planned to arrive in Indiana, the rain would have just about stopped. So we loaded into several vehicles and headed out.

One of the local rangers had kindly agreed to meet up with us and give us a tour of an environmentally sensitive area which is usually not open to the public, Pinhook Bog. Indiana’s only true bog it is a special geologic feature of this region. The Bog is a glacial kettle. At the end of the Wisconsin Glacial epoch, (14,000-15,000 ybp) a large chunk of ice remained buried at this location as the ice retreated northward. When the ice melted, the clay soil sealed the basins. The runoff from higher ground around the bog is the only water source. There are not streams or groundwater inflow or outflow. Evaporation from the open water and plants is the only loss of moisture. A bog is different than swamps, marshes or ponds because of this limited exchange of water. The water in the bog is stagnant, acidic, and nutrient-poor.

The outstanding feature of Pinhook Bog is the tree covered mat of sphagnum moss. Sphagnum moss is a stringy, delicate moss of a light-green color. The mat floats on top of the water and can become three to six feet thick, yet it can have a pocket of a few inches in the middle. As the mat thickens, larger and larger plants take root and grow. Under the mat a peat bed develops. The acidic water slows the decay of the sphagnum moss and other plants. In its current state the plants that are growing there have to be tolerant of an acidic environment, like the magnificent Pitcher Plant.

Although it was a little late in the season for orchids there were still a number of Orange-fringed Orchids in bloom and their characteristic shapes and delicate blooms were very appealing.

There was also an occasional Touch-me-not or Jewelweed peeping out from amongst the foliage. Called Touch-me-not because when the seed capsule is ripe, the slightest touch will cause it to eject it's seeds.

There were very few signs of vertebrate life, except for us but this one Green Frog did hang around long enough for me to grab a quick photo.

After having walked around the bog we headed out through some dense woodland and it was then that I began to realise just how much rain we have had in recent weeks. Apart from the obvious, copious quantities of mud, there were so many fungi of every shape, size and colour.

Having left the Bog, we headed to a nearby picnic area to have some lunch. Vincent, our department culinary expert was in charge of getting us all fed and in spite of the fact that somehow none of us had remembered to pack cooking utensils (!) A solution was found and soon we were all fed.

Even the picnic area had it's own crop of fungus but don't worry, we weren't tempted to add them to the menu!

One little visitor who spent a long time hanging around was this pretty little Hackberry Butterfly.

Our boss had gone all out on the treats! We had a choice of chocolate, red velvet or vanilla! This is the real outdoor life!!!!

Before we all fell asleep from a sugar coma from the cup cakes, we decided that another walk to explore some more of the local habitat would be a good idea. By now I was on a mission - fungus hunting!

It is a fascinating life form because it really does come in a seemingly endless array of forms.

There were a lot of Stink Bugs around too but I totally failed to get a clear picture despite numerous attempts (and one or two swear words thrown in for good measure.)

After we were done with the dark, dampness of the woodland, our last stop was the shore of Lake Michigan so that some of us could roll up our trousers and wade in the water.
It wouldn't be strictly true to say that we didn't collect anything on this trip (apart from the obligatory mosquito bites of course.) I made sure that no one left the beach without carrying at least a couple of nice flat stones with them as they always come in useful when we are setting up habitats for our animals at the Museum.

All too soon it was time to head back into the city but it was lovely to have spent the day outside, and the best part of all? It didn't rain on us!!

Photo Credits - CJT