Somewhere Over the Rainbow...

6:00am - Up early to pack for a trip to the Rainbow River in Dunnellon, Florida. We are meeting with Dr. Peter Meylan of Eckerd College. Dr Meylan has been researching the turtles on this river since 1991. A few times a year he comes to the river with a large group of students. There, a group swims and catches every turtle they find within a quarter-mile stretch of river. Other students in canoes shuttle the turtles to shore. Still another group processes turtles on the shore. Turtles are identified, weighed, measured, marked, and implanted with a PIT Tag (microchip) for permanent identification at a later capture. With all of this data, Meylan has been able to document the population structure of the turtle community.

Interestingly, I first knew of Peter Meylan when I was thirteen years old. He was a co-author on a paper I was involved in with Dr. James N. Layne. Dr. Layne was a mentor of mine after I contacted him about a rare snake I found in my neighborhood at age twelve. My mother would take me to Dr. Layne's lab about once a month and I would spend hours in the research library and specimen rooms. I was exposed to many other scientists who studied bears, frogs, snakes, and other species. This experience helped to solidify my scientific interests. 

I did not meet Meylan face to face until a Florida turtle symposium in 1999. We also collaborated on a publication on spotted turtles in 1998. It will be great to catch up with him. 

The Rainbow River is sourced by a first-magnitude springs which discharges around 400-600 million gallons of water per day. The river is crystal-clear for nearly the entire 5.7 miles of its length. The river is quite scenic on its protected, east side, yet packed with homes on its its west. The river experiences fairly high use of motor boats, kayaks and canoes, paddle boards, and scuba divers. This puts a number of pressures on the ecosystem.

A view to the west showing homes on the shore. 

A view to the west showing homes on the shore. 

Heavy traffic on the river today. 

Heavy traffic on the river today. 

Dr. Peter Meylan instructs the group. There were around 35-40 students. 

Dr. Peter Meylan instructs the group. There were around 35-40 students. 

10:00am - Arrived at the river just in time for Meylan's instructions for the turtle wranglers. Students will be swimming along the shore and catching every turtle they can. Two groups in motor boats will be picking up turtles for processing. They will be swimming upstream to the border of a protected, no swim area then swimming back...about a mile round trip!

10:30am - My good friend, Dr. Benjamin Atkinson catches two common musk turtles back to back. This diminutive species reaches an adult size of only 4-5 inches.

Dr. Benjamin Atkinson proudly holds his first capture of the day. 

Dr. Benjamin Atkinson proudly holds his first capture of the day. 

A shell of a loggerhead musk turtle. 

A shell of a loggerhead musk turtle. 

10:50am - A member of the group spots a brown water snake basking on a log snag. After I photograph it in situ I discover four more in the surrounding area. George and I stop to photograph them. This large water snake is non-venomous, but is usually quite pugnacious and not afraid to deliver a nasty bite. However, in my experience, I find large individuals tolerate handling as long as you are slow and deliberate with your movements. While photographing these snakes I found a predated shell of a loggerhead musk turtle. This individual was probably taken by a raccoon as it came up to nest.

Close up of the head of a large brown water snake. 

Close up of the head of a large brown water snake. 

A surprisingly placid brown water snake.  

A surprisingly placid brown water snake.  

11:30am - The turtle survey is in full swing with students holding turtles in hand patiently wait for the processing boat to pick up their specimens. Large numbers of loggerhead musk turtles and Suwannee cooters are being caught, along with a good number of Florida redbelly cooters. Interestingly, peninsula cooters are few, as they usually greatly out number the redbellys.

Students with six turtles in hand. 

Students with six turtles in hand. 

Transfering captures to Dr. Meylan in the processing boat. 

Transfering captures to Dr. Meylan in the processing boat. 

3:30pm - Everyone is off the river now and the last turtles are finishing being processed and being turned loose. To learn more about this river, it's ecosystem, and animals, please see an excerpt of a documentary I worked on below. You can download and view the entire film at http://www.schoolyardfilms.org/syf-films-and-study-guides/.

Tim Walsh - Manager of Natural History Collections and Citizen Science