Paiton Funderburk

Name: Paiton Funderburk

Residence: Rock Hill, South Carolina 

Degree: Biology

Occupation: Graduate Student

As Paiton Funderburk ’23 tracks down turtles at the Catawba Indian Reservation, her fellow tribal members cheer her along.

Her study of the Eastern Box turtles has rallied others to keep an eye out for the reptiles and to alert her when one is sighted. When she first finds a turtle, she takes photos, body measurements, externally sexes, and tags the animal so she can track its path through the rural reservation near Rock Hill, South Carolina, using GPS transmissions.

She recently started an internship with the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources and plans to continue it through the summer. Her research and the explanation of its findings has garnered her attention.

At the 2024 Native American Fish and Wildlife Society’s annual national conference in May in Welch, Minnesota, her research was given the People’s Choice Award. “Everyone was intrigued,” said Funderburk, a Rock Hill native. “There isn’t much research done on reptiles and amphibians. Because it’s not done, it keeps me going.”

Her research, overseen by her faculty advisor, Kiyoshi Sasaki, an assistant professor of biology, is important in the survival of the turtles. The species was once common throughout the eastern United States but now has undergone declines due to habitat destruction.

As growth occurs around the 630-acre reservation, many species are being affected. The reservation is changing with roadways which then fragments the habitat, Funderburk said. She has discovered that the female adult turtles cover more ground than the males with current tracking taking place near the tribe’s administrative offices at the Longhouse and a mile away at the Cultural Center.

She also found that turtles were predominantly located in hardwood/mixed forest habitat and near bodies of water. Additionally, females frequented the forest edge more than males, potentially exposing gravate (pregnant) females to mowing and other human disturbances.

Funderburk plans to collaborate with other turtle trackers on the reservation. They’ll pay close attention to the turtles’ reaction to the rivercane the tribe is planting along the Catawba River. The rivercane is culturally significant to the tribe, Funderburk said, because it was once used to make weapons, flutes, baskets and fences.

With the Catawba heritage coming from her mother’s side, Melissa Harris ’94, Funderburk plans to pursue a master’s degree in biology at Winthrop. She then hopes to either go to veterinarian school and open an animal clinic near the reservation or to attend law school to advocate for the environment.

She observed that despite comprising only 6% of the global population, Indigenous peoples safeguard 80% of the world's biodiversity. “Yet, they remain significantly underrepresented in conservation biology and related scientific fields,” Funderburk said. “I believe that my work will play a crucial role in furthering my understanding of how I can effectively contribute to nature conservation and Indigenous communities, ultimately helping me achieve my goals.”