Grant Funds Monitoring of Eastern Box Turtles’ Habitat

February 28, 2023


  • The research by graduate student Sydney Grant, which is 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, even in protected habitats.

  • Their research started in August 2022 when they were awarded a grant from Carolina Wildlands Foundation. Their work will continue for at least another year.

CHESTERFIELD, SOUTH CAROLINA – Each week during the warmer months, Winthrop University biology graduate student Sydney Grant heads to rural Chesterfield, South Carolina, to look for Eastern Box Turtles.

She keeps an eye on about a dozen turtles, who have tracking devices on them, so she can chart their movements and what habitats they favor. Grant’s work takes place on Southern 8ths Farm, which spreads out over 1,400 acres of hardwood trees, planted and native pine trees, reclaimed native grasslands and prairies, and several ponds, wetlands and streams. 

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, even in protected habitats.

“We are looking at what environments the turtles can best survive in,” Sasaki said. “We’re still at the beginning stage.”

Their work, started in August 2022 when they were awarded a grant from Carolina Wildlands Foundation, will continue for at least another year.

Turtles Slow Down in Winter

The turtles are in hibernation now during the winter months, so Grant has slowed her visits to every other weekend. “Though my analysis is not complete, it appears that the majority of the turtles in my study prefer habitats dominated by pine or hardwood trees and dense understory,” she said. “A few turtles have also been found crossing roads and lingering along roadside ditches.”

Once spring and summer arrive, Grant plans to track the turtles on a daily basis to better understand their movement patterns. She will work on the grant until she graduates in December and then will use her experience to become a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services.

Sasaki said that understanding how the turtles’ lives are affected by their habitat is essential in their long-term survival. In South Carolina, the Eastern Box Turtles are considered a moderate priority by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources

Normally Eastern Box Turtles live in areas with less than a mile radius. The turtles at the Southern 8ths Farm in Chesterfield have plenty of room to roam to look for the wild mushrooms, fallen fruits, slugs and worms on which they feed. Plus, on this particular farm, they live in a protected area that is a wildlife sanctuary.

The 12 turtles that Grant tracks range in size and age. The young turtles can fit in the palms of her hands, while the older adults may measure up to 6 inches in length. They can take up to 10 years to reach breeding age, and they can live to be 100 years old.

Conservationists find that the primary causes of turtle decline are due to several reasons, mainly loss of native forests that the turtles favor. There are also road deaths and the occasional poachers or pet collectors looking to domesticate the turtles. 

Turtles Studied Around York and Chester Counties

Closer to home, Sasaki and his students also study how prevalent the box turtles are at the Winthrop Farm on the university campus. There, Sasaki said the group studies how non-invasive plants affect the turtles’ movement at the Winthrop Farm and at other area wooded sites they’ve checked out, such as the Catawba Indian Reservation, Landsford Canal State Park and the Anne Springs Close Greenway.

Funding for the turtle migration work in Chesterfield comes from the Carolina Wildlands Foundation. Its organizers, Southern 8ths Farm Owner Brad Turley, came down South from Connecticut in 2007 when he bought 77 acres for a horse farm. Since then, he has bought more property – soon to grow to 1,500 acres – and has found a passion in finding experts to study his land and then telling stories about what they’ve found. Developing partnerships with area universities to conduct the research on the farm’s ecosystem is part of the process.

Turley has observed a gap in the upcoming generation of students. “I found that very few young people want to do outside biology,” Turley said. “Most biology majors go into molecular or microbiology.”

In the last few years, he has connected with Dwight Dimaculangan, chair of Winthrop’s Department of Biology, who helped the foundation create a grant concept to bring college students to the farm to conduct field research. Along with Winthrop, Wingate, Francis Marion and Newberry also participate.

Another Winthrop faculty member, Sal Blair, conducts research at the farm to identify fish species and soon to study white-tailed deer.

Coordinating the foundation’s internship and grant program is David Harper. He finds his work fulfilling to see what connections people can make with the land, something he describes as a unique experience.

Findings to be Shared at Conference

Several of the college students now conducting research at the farm, including Winthrop’s Sydney Grant, will present their findings at the 2023 Southeast Land Conservation Conference on April 27 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She will be among three students who are part of the session entitled “Next Gen Conservation Leaders: Partnerships for Building a Pipeline.”

A second goal of the Carolina Wildlands Foundation is to raise awareness of area landowners and agricultural operators to the benefits of restoring and protecting natural land so they can take care of their own property in small or large tracts.

The foundation has even bigger goals. NEON, which stands for the National Ecological Observatory Network, has shared with the foundation its phenology curriculum, which covers the study of cyclical and seasonal natural phenomena that relates to climate, plant and animal life. NEON, which is funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is interested in using the foundation’s internship program as a feeder group for scientists. Meanwhile, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources also collaborates with the foundation and could connect interns with future job opportunities.

As for Turley, he wants to see the grant-funded student research findings shared more broadly as an inspiration to others. And he wants to impress upon the students the importance of telling their stories in ways that don’t involve a lot of scientific jargon, and instead use language that the average citizen can understand. “It’s all about the stories,” said Turley.

For more information, contact Sasaki at or Harper at

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