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FL Press: Mystery of alligator snappers

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Posted by: W von Papineu at Wed Mar 30 10:34:22 2011  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papineu ]  
   

GAINESVILLE SUN (Florida) 22 March 11 UF student hopes to give a clearer picture of alligator snapping turtles (Rebecca Danta)
The behaviors of the alligator snapping turtle are puzzling and mysterious to many herpetologists, and University of Florida senior Michael Granatosky has set out to examine those mysteries.
Granatosky, 21, said the most fascinating thing about his research is what is still undiscovered.
“The alligator snapping turtle is misunderstood and unknown, making it an interesting animal to study,” he said. “People just want a picture with that ‘big, dangerous turtle' but that's the extent of what they know.”
Studying anthropology and wildlife ecology and conservation at UF, Granatosky is doing research on the turtle at the Florida Museum of Natural History to educate wildlife specialists on how to determine differences within the species. He does this by using high-quality images to analyze, measure and describe the turtles. Many of his photos come from snapping turtles he locates in the Santa Fe River.
Granatosky and his co-authors, Travis Thomas and Paul Moler, reached a conclusion suggesting the possibility of three distinct species of alligator snapping turtles.
Granatosky found that the genetic data was confusing and impractical in establishing differences between various snapping turtles. His solution was to find differences among the species by using easily identifiable physical characteristics.
“There were very complex terms that wildlife ecologists are not familiar with,” he said. “It's really good to have simple terms for people to easily differentiate varieties of the turtle.”
Granatosky does this by taking high-quality pictures of the turtles in the rivers of Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, the turtles' natural habitat. When Granatosky is not able to take the photographs, Thomas, his partner, takes them.
He then uses an image analysis program, Image J, to meticulously analyze each photo from every angle, describe differences in the turtle and put corresponding numbers to those differences.
“To have meaningful results, you need statistics, and statistics are hard without numbers,” he said. “We want to make as little error as possible.”
Granatosky's team will be presenting its research at the 34th Annual Herpetology Conference at the Paramount Plaza hotel on Southwest 13th Street on Friday and Saturday.
For two days in spring each year, hundreds of people converge in Gainesville to participate in what is the longest running regional herp symposium in the country. The Florida Museum of Natural History's Division of Herpetology convened the first conference in 1976 and has hosted every conference held since then.
Granatosky's next step is to work with his team to get the study published in a scientific journal — to create more awareness about the different species of alligator snapping turtles.
“We want to get it in writing as soon as possible,” Granatosky said. “The goal of it all is to inform people.”
Granatosky guesses the alligator snapping turtle got its name because its tough, rugged exterior reminded people of an alligator's hide.
“It just looks like a mean, nasty turtle,” he said. “But no one really knows what the true reason (for its menacing looks) is.”
Most turtles pale in comparison to an alligator snapping turtle. The common turtle found in lakes and rivers is a bit larger than a football and has a tiny mouth and claws.
“Take that football, flatten it out and make it much larger,” Granatosky said. “Now add lots of muscles, sharp claws and a strong bite. And there's your average alligator snapping turtle.”
The largest one he tested weighed 120 pounds. With that same turtle, he put a scale in its mouth to measure the force of its bite. The bite force measured 829 pounds.
“Imagine a scissor closing with 829 pounds of force,” he said. “In other words, you do not want your fingers near this turtle's jaw.”
Although Granatosky's research is currently devoted to studying alligator snapping turtles, he plans on pursuing his doctorate degree in early primate evolution. He is deciding between Duke and Yale for the fall.
“I've always been more of a mammal guy,” he said. “I got into them at a young age and haven't stopped since.”
Although Granatosky's education will be focused on mammals, he will still find a way to study alligator snapping turtles. He plans on researching the history of the species to figure out its growth and life cycle.
“A lot of data is missing on this animal, and it needs to be studied in a long-term way,” he said. “This turtle could outlive the researcher, but no one knows that right now.”
UF student hopes to give a clearer picture of alligator snapping turtles


   

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