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12/12/2018

Conservation Biology Class Seeks to Save Box Turtles From Urbanization

Quick Facts

 They received three grants – from the North American Box Turtle Conservation Committee, Sigma Xi and the Winthrop Research Council – and used the funds to purchase radio transmitters.
 They attached the radio tag to the turtles’ shells to track their travel and to monitor them long-term.

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ROCK HILL, SOUTH CAROLINA — Ashley Graham has always loved turtles.

So the Winthrop University graduate student found the perfect project through Assistant Professor of Biology Kiyoshi Sasaki’s conservation biology course and the ensuing reptile conservation lab: studying the effects of urbanization and climate variability on Eastern box turtles.

Sasaki’s lab, along with Graham, fellow graduate student Jack Nguyen and volunteers like Chris Garcia and Catlyn Johnson, an intern with the S.C. Governor’s School for Science & Mathematics, spent much of the summer and fall semesters traveling to 15 sites throughout York County, such as the Catawba Indian Reservation, Landsford Canal State Park, Andrew Jackson State Park, the Museum of York County and the Anne Springs Close Greenway, to track and study this turtle species.

They received three grants – from the North American Box Turtle Conservation Committee, Sigma Xi and the Winthrop Research Council – and used the funds to purchase radio transmitters. They attached the radio tag to the turtles’ shells to track their travel and to monitor them long-term.

“It’s really important that we look at these things because there has been a lot of research on box turtles in neighboring states, but not a lot in our area,” Graham said. “We don’t have a baseline assessment of the Piedmont box turtle population’s health.”

Sasaki pointed out that the box turtle population is probably in decline for two reasons, although they are unsure which mechanisms of decline are at play in the Rock Hill area: urbanization; and pet trade poaching. He’s hopeful that this research will help in devising conservation plans to mitigate negative impacts.

“It’s possible we can develop the environment to minimize the impact on wildlife,” he explained, “like keeping some lawns overgrown for wildlife, modifying the landscape.”

Like Graham, Sasaki grew up appreciating reptiles.

“Ever since I was little, I liked animals,” Sasaki said. “I grew up in a small village [in northern Japan], so much of my life was fishing – eating mostly fish and seaweeds, making things. I wanted to work with animals.”

Sasaki’s home country reveres snakes and seeks to protect them. After a deforesting issue arose back home, he knew he had to take action.

“I got upset because I really couldn’t do anything to help,” he said. “I knew if I became a professor, my government would listen to me, and I could make change.”

He holds degrees from Northwest Indian College and a Ph.D. in zoology from Oklahoma State University. He also spent some time studying acupuncture and tai chi in China.

“I’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m making a positive contribution here,” he said.

With this recent turtle project, Sasaki hopes to make it a long-term, multi-year research project.

“I’ve had a lot of students asking about the project and wanting to continue work on it,” he said.

For more information, contact Nicole Chisari, communications coordinator, at 803/323-2236 or chisarin@winthrop.edu.

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