Scouting out the turtle spots

Girl Scouts join a biologist on a swampy adventure to save an endangered species

In a swamp in South Carolina this summer, some science-minded young women found inspiration of the slowest kind.

Ten Girl Scouts from around the United States spent a week and a half tracking turtles – and singing their way through buggy territory.

The National Geographic Society and Girl Scouts of the USA sponsored their trip to the swamplands of Francis Biedler Forest to explore the secluded habitat of the spotted turtle. Following the lead of biologist Jacqueline Litzgus, the 16- and 17-year-old girls tracked members of the threatened species with radio devices to learn more about their behavior.

It was an opportunity for the scouts to observe a woman excelling in the field they love.

"The first day out in the swamp, I took them out on a hike to look at real turtle nests I'm monitoring," says Ms. Litzgus, a former brownie and a graduate of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. "We were out there for a lot longer than I had anticipated because the girls were so interested and they were asking such phenomenal questions."

The girls started the trip knowing little about these relatively small freshwater turtles. Now they know a shell-full.

"One of the cool things I learned about the turtle is that [its shell is] really its rib cage," says Teresa Mealy, a senior scout from Seattle. "I found out it's not like in the cartoons where they can crawl out of it!" she jokes.

Breanne Cisneros, from Anaheim, Calif., learned a different sort of lesson. "Being from a city where there aren't any swamps, I didn't know much about marshes. They were telling us to watch out for chiggers, and I thought, 'What are chiggers?' " she says. The biting bugs are endemic to areas with thick vegetation and an abundance of moisture and shade.

The girls followed the frequencies of their freshwater subjects on a radio. Litzgus had glued a small transmitter with a flexible eight-inch antenna to the rear of each of 15 turtles' shells when she began studying them in February 2000. She paired the girls up to collect data on the turtles' movements.

But first she had them conduct an experiment to see whether they would "make good turtle moms," she says. After explaining the nesting behavior of the species and the typical temperatures inside the turtles' nests, she sent them off in groups to find what they thought would be the best spot to lay turtle eggs.

In exercises like this one, they logged data and used scientific methods. They learned that the summer's drought had driven many spotted turtles to make their nests in terrestrial items such as fallen logs; in wetter times, the turtles prefer shallow pools of water.

The girls arrived to camp after a competitive selection process in which 70 girls from 37 states applied. Finalists were vetted by Girl Scouts of the USA.

"We looked for girls who have a passion for science and ecology, and who are motivated to explore these fields, possibly as career choices," says Diane Tukman, a director in the Membership, Program, and Research Department. "The girls we chose possess strong leadership skills, demonstrate self-motivation, and value teamwork."

The teens got along wonderfully, Litzgus says. "At one point they started singing old Girl Scout songs. I think they started getting punchy with the heat by the end of the day, but it was a lot of fun."

Litzgus is conducting her research in the southern extreme of the spotted turtles' range as part of an effort to earn her PhD at the University of South Carolina. She hopes to conclude whether these turtles' mating behavior, nest sizes, and ways of attracting new turtles to the population differ from those of spotted turtles in the northern range, which she studied in Canada.

Litzgus is also examining the turtles' seasonal activity cycles, temperature selection, and habitat, which could inform government policies that will allow the spotted turtles to survive.

For a few days, though, she relished the fact that the girls saw her as a role model.

"I was so excited when I found my turtle!" Breanne exclaims. "Jackie has motivated me to become like her and take the same qualities she expresses into whatever field I go.... I'd like to put myself out there to volunteer and to help protect endangered animals."

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