Trafficked alligator snapping turtles are set free by SFA researchers

Dr. Christopher Schalk, assistant professor of forest wildlife management, releases a snapping turtle back into its natural habitat in efforts to protect it from poaching. 

Around 21 adult alligator snapping turtles were released back into the wild this summer. A team of SFA researchers led by Dr. Christopher Schalk, assistant professor of forest wildlife management, and other agencies oversaw this repatriation effort. 

30 alligator snapping turtles were rescued from poachers back in 2016 by undercover U.S. Fish & Wildlife service agents. 

The poachers were from Louisiana,” Schalk said. “They came to Texas and brought the turtles over [to Louisiana]. Once you cross state line, it’s a federal crime through what is known as the Lacey Act.” 

Louisiana currently only allows the harvest of one alligator snapping turtle per day with the proper license. That is why, Schalk said, poachers travel to states like Texas where these turtles are protected. There is a higher population of turtles in states with protection laws. 

Since their rescue, the turtles had been cared for in the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery in Louisiana. It was not until January of this year that SFA researchers got involved and began working on getting these turtles back to their natural habitats. 

Schalk said the first step was determining where the turtles came from. 

We had genetic material from other alligator snapping turtles sampled, and we gave that tissue along with tissues from the collected turtles to a lab called Tangled Bank Conservation, and they told us what river drainages these turtles came from,” Schalk said. 

Based on genetics, the team was able to determine the turtles came from the Sabine, Cypress Sulphur and Neches River drainages. Once the suitable release sights were found, the turtles went through a final health examination by a veterinarian from the Houston Zoo, a radio transmitter was attached to each one, and then they were set free. 

Even though the alligator snapping turtles were released, the project does not stop there for SFA researchers.  

Connor Adams, a research associate at SFA, works under Schalk’s supervision collecting and analyzing the data from the radio transmitters they receive.  

“My job is to deal with the logistics of keeping track of the repatriated turtles week in and week out, collecting and managing data that will give us an idea of their habitat use and survival,” Adams said. 

The data collected from the radio transmitters includes if the turtles are alive, their location, the type of habitat they are in, how far they move and habitat temperature. 

“One of the turtles moved over four miles in one week,” Schalk said. Other timeshe said, the data doesn’t bring the best news. “There is one [turtle],” he said, “that didn’t make it, but that is the only one. All the rest are doing well.” 

Since these turtles were released during the summer, not many students were able to participate in the repatriation efforts 

Andy Lara, senior biology student from Mesquite, was the only undergraduate student to work on this project. Although his area of study is freshwater fish, Lara said he was excited to work as a field technician in the repatriation effort. 

I could’ve done with a little less spider web in my facesticks in my hair and wet clothes, but I enjoyed the rough times and [am] glad of the things it taught me,” Lara said. have learned tons of incredible things from my fellow crewmates and through our studies, especially working with the radio transmitter tracking equipment [which] I hope to use again in the future. 

Schalk claims that the majority of turtles rescued were females, which will “bolster the existing populations.” 

Schalk said that as the weeks go by, SFA researchers will continue to study these alligator snapping turtles and monitor their survival. 

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