Ann Somers publishes groundbreaking paper on eastern box turtles

Posted on February 16, 2021

Ann Berry Somers
Ann Berry Somers on site at a HERP Project herpetology camp, where high school students learn to become citizen-scientists, collecting real world data.
Ann Berry Somers on site at a HERP Project herpetology camp, where high school students learn to become citizen-scientists, collecting real world data.

UNC Greensboro’s Ann Berry Somers, senior lecturer in biology, with John H. Roe, professor at UNC Pembroke, recently announced the release of a new paper on eastern box turtles, the North Carolina state reptile.

“State-wide population characteristics and long-term trends for Eastern Box Turtles in North Carolina” was accepted by the Ecological Society of America’s Ecosphere journal.  

Data for the study was collected through a project Somers founded called the Box Turtle Connection (BTC). A network of citizen scientists trained by BTC researchers has been collecting data on box turtle populations for over a decade, making it the largest scale coordinated population monitoring study of this species ever conducted. The aim is to continue collecting data for decades, giving it the potential to become one of the longest-running multi-population studies of any species ever attempted.  

According to Somers, the longevity of the study is perhaps the most exciting aspect. 

“It gives me hope for the future of the species to know that we have a breadth of young scientists to continue this important work,” said Somers.

One of the paper’s co-authors, UNCG biology lecturer Ashley LaVere, is the new co-chair of the BTC, along with another co-author, Gabrielle Graeter of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.  LaVere worked on the project as an undergraduate and has assisted with the training for many years. Each generation of researchers will pass the torch to the next. Because box turtles are among the longest-living vertebrates in North America, some will be recaptured by succeeding generations of citizen scientists who will learn more from them, ideally for at least 100 years. 

Somers and LaVere, along with Catherine Matthews, are co-authors of a free downloadable book called The Box Turtle Connection, Building a Legacy

Nearly 60% of the world’s turtle species are either threatened with or already driven to extinction.  Some populations and species have declined rapidly due to habitat loss, disease outbreaks, and predators, and they are being collected for the pet and food trades at an alarming rate, leaving scientists with limited opportunity to study their biology and implement effective conservation strategies.   

Box turtle populations still offer this opportunity, and scientists and land managers in the Box Turtle Connection network are using it to learn more about turtle populations now, so that they may be more effectively conserved for the future.   

A key finding in the study was that box turtle population trends and characteristics were similar across the state’s ecoregions.  Sometimes, when a species like box turtles has a broad geographic range, their populations may experience threatening processes and respond to these disturbances in different ways according to their regional location.  This was not the case for box turtles in North Carolina, which means that successful conservation and management practices applied in one region would likely be as effective in other regions or environments as well.  Until now, even baseline data on the status of box turtle populations at most of these sites was lacking.  

Story by Eden Bloss, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communicatio


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