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Study focuses on impact of algal blooms on turtles

08/26/2017, 9:29am EDT

Researchers studying reptiles in Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge

UT associate professor Jeanine Refsnider and Auburn University senior Austin Hulbert check a fyke net, a type of bag-shaped net, for turtles at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. THE BLADE/LORI KING

OAK HARBOR — Wading around in a steamy marsh, up to your neck in dark, stained water and shin-deep in muck that is also home to leeches and a lot of other slimy things — this is no way for a college student to spend their summer break.

Unless, of course, that individual is a budding biologist who thinks this kind of swampy activity beats the thrill rides at an amusement park, hanging out with friends, or whiling away the hours watching videos.

“It was really rewarding,” said Austin Hulbert, a senior at Auburn University who spent most of his summer working with University of Toledo researchers who are studying the possible impact of the Lake Erie algal blooms on turtles in the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.

“Being around other scientists, I found myself in a very conducive atmosphere that I think was really preparing me for the next step. I’ve been involved in several other projects at Auburn, but never had the opportunity to dedicate all of my time to the work. This makes me feel reassured that research is definitely what I want to do for my career.”

Mr. Hulbert, a second semester organismal biology major, worked with the project’s director, UT’s Dr. Jeanine Refsnider, an assistant professor of ecology, and Jessica Garcia, a UT graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in biology.

Ms. Refsnider observed that while the algal bloom crisis in the summer of 2014 drew national attention, since the tap water drawn from Lake Erie that more than 500,000 northwest Ohioans customarily use had been declared unsafe due to high levels of microcystin, there had been minimal discussion on how the toxin, which is linked to certain freshwater cyanobacteria found in algal blooms, might affect wildlife in and around the lake.

“The research focus has been on human health, which makes sense, but there is very little known about the impact of these algal blooms on wildlife, other than fish,” she said.

The study underway in the refuge, which is located along State Route 2 about 10 miles north of here and about 20 miles east of Toledo, is among the first of its kind. It centers on the strong turtle population in the nearly 7,000 acre site, which is also a haven for waterfowl, migrating birds, deer and other wildlife.

“Turtles are quite robust,” Ms. Refsnider said. “For a lot of species of vertebrates, what you see is when they’re stressed, their immune function is depressed, just like you find in humans. For turtles, preliminarily, we don’t really see that. Their immune system doesn’t seem to get weaker when they’re under stress.”

The team trapped about 60 turtles, primarily the common painted turtles and map turtles. The researchers used a variety of devices to capture the reptiles unharmed, take a series of measurements including size and weight, and photograph the distinct patterns on the shells. The UT research group also determined the gender of the turtles, examined the females for the presence of eggs, and documented the number of leeches attached to the turtles.

The also took blood samples, Ms. Garcia said, looking for parasites in the bloodstream. Some of the turtles also had their immune systems tested by the team back at the lab. A skin irritant was injected into one foot, and then the swelling in the webbing was compared to the other non-injected foot at specific intervals. About 48 hours after the tests began, the turtles were returned to the marsh and released in the same location where they had been trapped. Ms. Garcia will analyze the frozen blood samples this winter.

“I’ve always leaned toward working in a science-related field, and growing up near Lake Erie, I always knew I wanted to work with the Great Lakes in some fashion,” the Lakewood native said. “This study really offered me the perfect mix, combining both of those. Plus, doing the work out in the field makes it much more realistic than reading about research or hearing about it in a classroom.”

The study will continue into 2018, with Ms. Garcia focusing her graduate work on it, and one or two scientific papers expected to eventually be produced, once the research and analysis is completed.

“We’re looking for baseline levels of physiological stress,” Ms. Refsnider said. “We’re expecting that turtles during an algal bloom will have higher stress levels and lower immune functioning than turtles that are not exposed to an algal bloom, or turtles from different years when there isn’t any exposure to algae.”

The University of Toledo study will likely open the door to more extensive research on other inhabitants of the lake and its marsh areas, including water snakes, frogs and water birds.

“Since turtles are pretty tough, you can expose them to new climates and it doesn’t seem to affect them too much,” said Ms. Refsnider, who came to UT in 2015 to take advantage of the opportunity to study how organisms respond to rapid environmental change. The unique ecosystem that surrounds the lake and Erie’s ecological climate offered her a superb laboratory for those studies.

“The ecology here is really interesting,” she said. “For the Midwest, Ohio has a really diverse community of reptiles and amphibians, which is what I work on. This is a great fit for me.”

Ms. Refsnider has done extensive research on turtles previously, but the algal blooms and the presence of the toxic cyanobacteria present a very different environment. “A toxin in their water might be a substantially bigger problem — we’re just not sure,” she said. “It could be that it doesn’t affect turtles, but it affects snakes or birds.”

Ms. Garcia, 23, who did her undergraduate studies in biology with a concentration in environmental science at Ohio’s Notre Dame College, had previously done work at the Lake Erie Center and established a network of friends in the local scientific community.

Mr. Hulbert, 22, who coincidently was born in Toledo but moved to Alabama at age nine, was attracted to the “hands-on” nature of the project, and the opportunity to work with Ms. Refsnider. The lead researcher anticipates the potential broader applications that could come from the study.

“If we can tell that algal blooms have a severe impact on these populations, maybe we can think about how to protect certain habitat areas from any kind of water exchange with Lake Erie, so they have a refuge,” Ms. Refsnider said. “Understanding the role algal blooms play in the decline of a local species will give us a better idea of how to protect these species against some human-caused threats.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at or 419-724-6068.

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Ms. Refsnider draws blood from a snapping turtle at the refuge. She said it’s not known whether toxic algae is a problem for turtles: ‘It could be that it doesn’t affect turtles.’ THE BLADE/LORI KING

University of Toledo Jeanine Refsnider, left, and UT grad student Jessica Garcia prepare a blood sample drawn from a snapping turtle that was found near the wetlands at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Oak Harbor.

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