‘Murder Mystery at Misery Bay’

Laurentian University herpetologist Jacqueline Litzguz with a healthy Blanding’s turtle in Sudbury.

Laurentian U. biologists research death of 40 rare Blanding’s turtles

MANITOULIN––Laurentian University students will be studying the mysterious death of 50 Misery Bay Provincial Park turtles last summer and trying to determine the cause thanks to an $80,000 grant from the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) Species at Risk Stewardship Fund.

As reported last week, Friends of Misery Bay (FOMB) applied for funding last year in conjunction with Laurentian University and recently learned they were successful in their application with the MNR Species at Risk Stewardship Fund.

“We are very excited,” said Dr. Jacqueline Litzguz, a herpetologist (a researcher who studies amphibians and reptiles) with Laurentian University who has been working over the last several months to determine the cause of death of the turtles. “Laurentian, through FOMB, has been given $80,000 over two years to investigate the death of the Misery Bay turtles. The funding will pay for one masters of science student and a field assistant to study this issue.”

Dr. Litzguz further explained that Laurentian University will be matching some of the funding to pay for the graduate student, in addition to in-kind matches through the use of the school’s equipment, tools and lab.

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“A portion of the funding is for rent so the students can live there (Misery Bay) and radio track and observe the turtles,” continued Dr. Litzguz. “Part of their work will be to survey all the turtles in the park and the Crown land around the park, and once we determine a cause, to make a plan to recover the population.”

Last fall Ontario Parks ecologists Anna Sheppard and Ed Mooris discovered 50 dead turtles (10 adult painted turtles and 40 Blanding’s turtles) throughout April and May at Misery Bay Provincial Park while working on radio-tracking turtle movements, habitat and behaviour at the park.

The park ecologists contacted Dr. Litzguz, who has been working with Andrea Mendler, a fourth-year Laurentian forensic studies student, since last fall to determine the cause of the turtle population decline.

“Andrea’s thesis is called ‘The Murder Mystery at Misery Bay’,” explained Dr. Litzguz. “Though a lot of her work was inconclusive, she did some really neat work and tested a few theories we had.”

One of the theories Ms. Mendler tested is the presence of the ranavirus. ‘Rana,’ meaning frog, is an emerging infectious disease that is one of the global causes for amphibian decline.

“We extracted DNA from the tissue of four live turtles and frogs from Misery Bay, in addition to bone tissue from some of the shells of the dead turtles,” explained Dr. Litzguz. “We collected 98 samples in total, extracting the DNA at our lab here and then Andrea took the samples to Dr. Matthew Allender of the University of Illinois to test for the ranavirus. Only one sample from a frog had a weak signal of the ranavirus, so unfortunately, the results were inconclusive.”

Despite the results, Dr. Litzguz said that the ranavirus still could be the cause of the turtle deaths.

“The virus is very short lived,” Dr. Litzguz told The Expositor “The turtles we tested could have had the virus and recovered and we aren’t sure how long the turtle carcasses were there before they were found. Also, bone tissue is not the best for testing.”

“The next step is looking at live turtles,” continued Dr. Litzguz, “which makes this new funding so exciting. We can have researchers there daily watching the turtles and looking for symptoms of the virus such as lesions on the skin and/or fluid leaking out of the nostril. Then we can take a sample and do the molecular work (testing) for the ranavirus at Laurentian.”

Another theory that Ms. Mendler tested is predation.

“Andrea tried to determine if the damage to the dead turtle shells was caused by a predator or a scavenger after the turtle’s death,” said Dr. Litzguz. “Her theory was that if the death of the turtle was caused by predation there would be more damage to the shell than a scavenger coming along and eating the turtle after its death. She created a scoring system based on the level of damage and categorized all the shells. The study was again inconclusive, but the results showed that it doesn’t look like the cause was predation.”

Ms. Mendler won’t present her defense (thesis) until Friday, April 4, but during the Ontario Biology Day Conference held at the University of Toronto last month, she was awarded ‘Best Talk’ for her presentation on ‘The Murder Mystery at Misery Bay.’

In addition to further study on the theory of the ranavirus this summer, Dr. Litzguz said they will also be looking at a theory involving turtle hibernation as the cause of death.

“What makes this project so cool is the partnership with Laurentian, FOMB, Ontario Parks and the MNR,” said Dr. Litzguz. “We wouldn’t be doing this at all if it wasn’t for Anna (Sheppard) and Ed (Mooris) discovering the dead turtles, FOMB for applying for the funding or the MNR for its financial support.”

“A hit to the turtle population like this is unheard of,” she added. “Recovering the population isn’t going to happen quickly, but at least we can start figuring out what killed them and make a plan for recovery.”

Dr. Litzugz said she has a few “really good candidates” for the study, with the deadline for submission Monday, March 31.

The successful graduate candidate and his/her team will start their work at Misery Bay once the snow melts and the turtles begin to come out of hibernation.

robin@manitoulin.ca