Turtles: CUNY’s Excellent Partners for a Habitat Restoration Study

December 11, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University

THEY’RE ONLY TURTLES but they may be the key to helping CUNY researchers figure out how wildlife is affected by habitat restoration.

Turtles are caught and released after blood samples are taken and analyzed for health, diet, toxins and genetics.

Turtles are caught and released after blood samples are taken and analyzed for health, diet, toxins and genetics.

Eugenia Naro-Maciel and a team of student researchers at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center are studying the snapping, painted and red-eared slider turtles of the reclaimed ecosystem at Freshkills Park.

The Staten Island park was once the site of the world’s largest landfill and while the garbage has been covered, the ecological threat may still linger, says Naro-Maciel, the principal investigator and an assistant professor of biology at CSI.

“We’re using the turtles to figure out how well the restoration process works. … My Ph.D. student Seth Wollney is looking at the turtles to see if they have accumulated toxins, which would be a strong reflection of their habitat,” says Naro -Maciel.

The team will catch the turtles and release them after taking measurements and blood samples. Back in the lab the samples will be analyzed to find out about the diet, health, demography and genetics of the freshwater turtle communities living in the ponds of the 2,200-acre park.

The turtles make ideal subjects to study because they are relatively sedentary, they are high up on the food chain and they have long lifespans, which means they can be monitored over an extended period of time. They are being studied over a period of five years and results are expected in 2016. Study collaborators include researchers at Freshkills Park, the Staten Island Museum, the Staten Island Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History.

“We have something very important going on in our own backyard with the reclamation of Freshkills. CSI students are working in the field during the summer, so it’s wonderful that they can get involved in conservation in their own community,” says Naro-Maciel.