Number of Public Engaged

Making scientific observations requires a particular kind of rigor. For instance, when I do my turtle counting, it's important to note the conditions: cloud cover, wind speed, air and water temperature. And at the bottom of the form, after I've taken notes on each turtle I've spotted, there's one more line: "# of Public Engaged."

If you stare through a spotting scope on a lakeshore long enough, someone will ask you what you're doing. 

"I'm counting turtles."
"There used to be lots of turtles here."
"Yes...those turtles are gone. Now there's just one kind of turtle here, the Western Pond Turtle."
"Well, I grew up here, and there used to be lots of turtles."
"Lady, those were the wrong turtles."

Only in blogs do I get to say "Lady, those were the wrong turtles." But that's the truth. The turtles that used to crowd the lake were Red-eared sliders, the most common pet turtle in the United States. Red-eared sliders are everywhere, which is good for red-eared sliders, but bad news for other turtles.

Red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) are native to the southern United States. And it turns out that the Southern US is a hotbed of turtle evolution. It's warm year round, and there's lots of slow moving or still fresh water (The Mekong Delta in Southeast Asia is another fertile turtle territory). And one reason that red-eared sliders are popular pets is because they are a durable turtle. They evolved in a competitive neighborhood.

If Red-eared sliders are introduced into Western pond turtle territory, the Western pond turtles will lose. Red-eared sliders will grow faster and lay bigger broods of eggs than the Western pond turtles. It's not the turtles' fault; people are the ones spreading species around the globe, with unintended and unpredictable consequences.

So we engage the public. Explaining why the Western pond turtle matters, why restoring ecosystems matters, why biodiversity matters.