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The turtles of Salmon Brook

By SHERRY DUTZY - Guest Columnist | Jun 4, 2022

Literature on freshwater turtles throughout New Hampshire, unfortunately, is not as complete as other parts of the country. This, presumably, is due in part to the lack of herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians of a particular region or habitat) diversity.

New Hampshire is home to seven native freshwater turtles; Blanding’s turtle, spotted turtle, Eastern box turtle, common musk turtle, snapping turtle, wood turtle, and the Eastern painted turtle. Four of the seven turtle species are in greatest need of conservation: Blanding’s turtle, spotted turtle, Eastern box turtle and wood turtle. Most notably, the Blanding’s turtle and the spotted turtle, are protected under the state’s Endangered Wildlife Conservation Act. More than half of the world’s 300 plus species of turtles are threatened with extinction, including some of those right here in New Hampshire. In theory, each of these turtle species native habitat range should overlap within the city limits of Nashua…but do they? One way of finding this out, is by completing a turtle population survey.

A turtle population survey is an attempt to determine the presence and/or absence of turtle species in a given area. The second year of a three-year study has just been completed to answer this very question. Through a scientific permit by NH Fish & Game, Jeremy Fontaine, Professor Shanna Demers, several of her students from the Rivier University Biology Department, the Nashua Conservation Commission, Zoo New England, and volunteers, are placing humane turtle traps throughout the Salmon Brook tributary to capture and identify turtles.

Little is known about turtle populations inhabiting Salmon Brook and until now, there has been no known turtle research or study in this area. Turtles are the oldest living group of reptiles and are among the most ecologically important components of freshwater ecosystems. Most freshwater turtle species are mid-level consumers that help maintain insect and fish populations and control aquatic vegetation. Additionally turtles and their eggs are an important food source for small mammals and birds of prey. Unfortunately, Salmon Brook is often used as a homeowner ‘dumping ground’ for grass clippings, yard debris, and garbage. Salmon Brook also plays an important role in capturing stormwater runoff and runoff-impacted surface waters. Because of these added burdens, wildlife within Salmon Brook is exposed to contaminants, trash, and invasive plants and animals. By better understanding which turtle species call the Salmon Brook home, we can better determine the health of the ecosystem and use the information as a barometer for similar waterbodies in the area.

Jeremy Fontaine, current Environmental Compliance Officer at the MBTA, and a former reptile and amphibian zookeeper at the San Diego Zoo, recently lead students and volunteers on adventures throughout Salmon Brook tributary to check his temporary humane turtle traps. When a turtle is captured in one of the placed traps, several important measurements are taken to assess the health of the turtle. Measurements recorded include: the carapace length (top of the turtle’s shell), length of the plastron (bottom of the shell), the width of the shell, the turtle’s weight, sex, and overall visual health. These biometric measurements are then sent to NH Fish & Game for state records and as part of the scientific permit.

As someone who grew up in Nashua, NH, Jeremy started this research more as a unique opportunity to discover what was ‘out there’ in Nashua. “I grew up in Nashua and was always running around and exploring the swamp (Salmon Brook) behind my house, but I honestly never really knew what called the swamp home”. After many years in animal husbandry and environmental research, Jeremy put his experience and expertise to work to help answer this very question.

After a successful first year, Jeremy wanted to share this experience with the local community and partnered with the Nashua Conservation Commission and Assistant Professor Shanna Demers of Rivier University. Shanna eagerly joined Jeremy’s research project knowing it would be a great opportunity to engage undergraduate biology students in field research in the community. Engaging Rivier University students in important research happening in the University’s neighborhood is a great way for them to test their knowledge and see the type of work they could be involved in after graduation. “We currently do not have any biology faculty conducting research on reptiles and I have a few students looking to gain experience in animal handling as they prepare for veterinary school. Jeremy’s research was a perfect opportunity for my students to gain animal handling skills while broadening their knowledge in field research, ecology, and herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians).”

Over the course of the two-week sampling period, Shanna, six Rivier University biology students, three members of the Nashua Conservation Commission, and four volunteers, joined Jeremy to assist in data collection and learn about turtles and other animals living in Salmon Brook. “My students and I can’t wait to see what is next with this survey! I am looking forward to continued collaboration with both Jeremy and the Nashua Conservation Commission.” Maegan Sheehy, a senior at Rivier University was one of the first students to show interest in volunteering. “Working with Jeremy was an incredible and unique experience. I am so glad I was able to be a volunteer for this survey and had a lot of fun while learning so many new things!”

Through two years, 128 turtles have been captured and measured – creating a foundation of data for this area of Nashua. This database will only grow moving forward, as next year, Fields Grove is the anticipated area of interest. Overall, the study has been successful, especially by engaging local stakeholders and creating partnerships within the community. After next year, all information will be published, with the goal of future studies in other areas throughout Nashua and Southern, NH. “Honestly, the opportunities for research are endless. All it takes is one person to ask a question, go out there, get their hands dirty, and try to answer that very question,” says Jeremy. “That is the foundation of science.”

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