FSW Research Class Aims to Prevent Turtle Poaching, Habitat Destruction

In a secret location in Southwest Florida, before even the sun has fully risen for its day, Florida SouthWestern State College Biology Professor Jordan Donini and his Independent Research class are treading through knee-deep water in the Florida marsh.

Unfazed by the snakes, spiders and insects that cross their path and buzz their ears, they are here every Friday morning searching for one thing – the Florida box turtle.

“Turtles are one of the most at-risk groups of animals on the planet right now because of habitat destruction and fragmentation,” Donini said. “They are especially sensitive to climate change because they have temperature-dependent sex determination. These specific turtles that we are studying are also especially popular in the pet trade and face pressures from illegal poaching and over-collection.”

As each new turtle is discovered, the students measure it, assign it a number, and mark its scutes according to its assigned number. Donini then microchips it with a radio transmitter so his students can track it and monitor any trends and changes in its location, habitat, size and health.

“The most rewarding part is finding that new turtle,” FSW student Jackie Drew said. “It’s definitely a cool feeling because you’re finding evidence of a healthy population, and they are surviving and thriving and making more of themselves for future generations.”

Students in the class also learn how to use radio telemetry equipment and how to do wildlife surveys and measurements, which are basic skills needed for entry-level wildlife jobs.

“Pairing my love of nature with my love of science has made it really cool,” said Drew. “It’s surprising and rewarding being able to have this experience at a state college.”

“When you find a turtle, when you start collecting data, at the end of the day, it’s very fulfilling,” FSW student Adrian Rodriguez said. “When I first started at FSW, I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do for a degree or career. This course made me realize this is something I want to do for the rest of my life. It’s like a dream come true for me to be working out here.”  

Since Donini began teaching the class in the fall of 2019, he and his students have found and tracked nearly 200 turtles in a variety of species. The data they collect will be analyzed for submission into peer-reviewed scientific journals, and it will also be shared as a report with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) every three years, which Donini hopes will be used to inform wildlife policies in the future.