A turtle murder mystery

Joe Bienentreu augers a hole in the ice near a hibernating turtle allowing Donnell Gasbarrini to use a dissolved oxygen meter to record the oxygen level of the water.

Blanding’s researchers at Misery Bay seek winter data

EDITOR’S NOTE: The investigation continues at Misery Bay as The Expositor gets a first-hand look at how researchers are attempting to solve the mysterious deaths of over 71 turtles.

MISERY BAY—The Expositor joined researchers last weekend at Misery Bay Provincial Park who are conducting field work on Blanding’s turtles at the park in an effort to determine the cause of death of over 71 turtles in 2013.

As The Expositor previously reported, Donnell Gasbarrini, a Laurentian University Masters of Science student working on her masters under Dr. Jacqueline Litzgus, a professor and herpetologist in the Department of Biology at the university, extended her field study over the winter, visiting the park monthly to further explore theories of predation and hibernation.

Ms. Gasbarrini lived near Misery Bay from May to September 2014, conducting daily monitoring of the Blanding’s turtles as part of an $80,000 (over two years) grant to the Friends of Misery Bay (FOMB), in conjunction with Laurentian University, from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s (MNRF) Species at Risk Stewardship Fund.

Using radio trackers, Ms. Gasbarrini and her field assistant Amber Koldzik monitored a total of 18 Blanding’s turtles in the park in addition to using turtle decoys and field cameras to monitor potential predators.

Ontario Parks ecologists Anna Sheppard and Ed Mooris discovered dead turtles throughout April and May 2013 at Misery Bay Provincial Park while working on radio-tracking turtle movements, habitat and behaviour.

Ms. Gasbarrini met The Expositor at the Misery Bay welcome centre this past Saturday morning, along with her research partner for the weekend Joe Bienentreu, a Boreal Ecology PhD student from Germany.

“This is my first time conducting winter research,” explained Ms. Gasbarrini. “It’s very different, but beautiful. I’ve really been enjoying it.”

Bringing with them a sled full of equipment, the pair headed out to the park’s wetland areas.

Visiting the different areas of the wetland, she used a radio tracking device to find where the monitored turtles were hibernating.

“We were able to find 14 of the (18 monitored) turtles,” Ms. Gasbarrini reported to The Expositor on Monday. “It was helpful knowing where the areas were that they were hibernating before; none of them moved significantly.”

The pair also used an ice auger to drill into the wetlands to collect water samples and test the dissolved oxygen level using a dissolved oxygen meter.

“The meter has a probe protector so we were able to submerge it in the mud/water and record the oxygen level. We will then do a comparison at the end of the season.”

She explained that for the most part, the turtles were clustered under small cedar trees in the wetlands. The trees, she added, have ‘windows’ in between their roots that create deep pockets where she would often find the turtles in the fall.

At the various hibernation sites, the pair also took photos and noted any predator footprints. In addition there are several trail cameras set up at the sites, which Ms. Gasbarrini will check in the spring.

On Saturday, Ms. Gasbarrini found coyote tracks at one hibernation location and mink tracks in the forest surrounding another.

Back in the lab Ms. Gasbarrini said research is “going well.”

“I am just wrapping up writing a proposal regarding changes for the 2015 field season,” said Ms. Gasbarrini. “Basically, it’s a paper talking about what I want to do and how I plan to solve the problem of the turtle deaths. One of the changes is that I want to put the theory of diseases (as a cause of the turtle death) on the back burner because of a lack of tissue and because we haven’t found any sick turtles. I have also been thinking a lot about where the turtle deaths occurred (they have identified a very specific location at Misery Bay). We have learned a lot about the surrounding area where the death didn’t occur, but I want to focus on the mortality area. We know where they were hibernating, but we don’t know where in that area the turtles are nesting.”

If Ms. Gasbarrini’s proposal is approved, she wants to zero in on the mortality area in the spring to see if any turtles are hibernating in the area (she knows none of the monitored turtles are hibernating in the spot).