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John Roe’s study finds big differences in movement behaviors of box turtles

Dr. John Roe and Joseph Nacy
Dr. John Roe and Joseph Nacy

When not in the college classroom, Dr. John Roe spends much of his free time in the field studying box turtles.  And he is not alone.  For several years, he has mentored undergraduate researchers, many of whom have appeared as co-authors on his series of papers focused on the disturbance ecology of box turtles.  Some of these students have followed in his footsteps, pursuing graduate studies in related endeavors. 

Roe’s newest paper (see below), which appears in the Journal of Zoology, is co-authored by Biology alumni Amy Kish and Joseph Nacy.  Their five-year study compared movement behaviors of nearly 60 box turtles in two state parks -- an unburned site in Lumber River State Park and a fire-managed site in Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve. Roe’s students used radiotelemetry and GPS coordinates to monitor turtles.

Box turtles in their study demonstrated considerable flexibility in their responses to environmental conditions, yet individuals, particularly males, showed remarkable year-to-year fidelity in home range sizes.  Fire, sex, and body size factored highly in these responses.  Home ranges in the unburned site were twice as large as home ranges in the fire managed site, and home ranges were decidedly smaller where fire was more intense and frequent.  In contrast to the findings in other studies, home ranges for females were twice the size of home ranges for males.  Females moved more often than did males during nesting season, possibly owing to their searches for suitable nesting sites. 

Regrettably, box turtle populations are declining in many parts of the species’ range, and fire can be lethal for these slow moving animals.  For their protection and to address their resource requirements, the authors recommend alternating fire cycles in small burn compartments. Given the observed variability in behaviors among individuals and between populations, they also caution against generalizations in management decision making.  

Amy Kish
Amy Kish

What are the student co-authors doing now?  Joseph Nacy (above) recently graduated with a master’s degree from Western Carolina University, where he studied the fire ecology of one of the world’s most endangered amphibians, the Dusky Gopher Frog.  He is currently pursuing entry into a PhD program.  Amy Kish (to the right) is now a middle school science teacher in Hoke County, NC, public schools.