High-Tech Turtles

River Fork Ranch Preserve in the Carson Valley

If you’re a turtle, the latest smartphone or computer is likely the last thing on your mind. But if you’re a scientist trying to help turtles, technology is an invaluable tool.

The Western pond turtle is Nevada's only freshwater turtle. These reptiles live at our River Fork Ranch Preserve in the Carson Valley, but we don’t know much about their habits, movements or histories.

In order to learn more about these turtles, we launched a study at River Fork Ranch Preserve—with help from the American Turtle Observatory and Nevada Department of Wildlife–using radio telemetry and genetic analyses. The goal of the study is to evaluate the habitat use, home range, dispersal patterns, population dynamics and genetic source of the pond turtle populations in northwestern Nevada.



The multi-year study is made possible by a cadre of Nature Conservancy citizen scientists who work from the Whit Hall Interpretive Center. The volunteers work side by side with staff from the Nevada Department of Wildlife to follow strict reptile handling protocols to capture and assess the turtles.  The project includes telemetry tracking, genetic sampling and occurrence based surveys. 

Capturing turtles is no easy task. At River Fork Ranch Preserve, the research team set 100 traps around the 800-acre preserve. Then, they checked the traps every two hours over the course of ten days. Captured pond turtles were marked, measured, weighed and photographed. Scientists also recorded details about each turtle, including health, age and sex.

The researchers also fitted 15 of the captured turtles with telemetry transmitters to track their movements. The telemetry units are roughly the size of a person's pinkie finger nail with a 10-inch antenna. The adhesive on the transmitters was camouflaged before the turtles were returned to their habitat.

Based on their preliminary findings, NDOW scientists published a report on the habitats and home ranges of the Western pond turtle in Nevada’s Carson River. The study is expanding to McCarran Ranch Preserve and Fairfield Ranch where we’ll focus on determining whether the Carson, Truckee, and Walker river turtle populations have a common genetic origin. These efforts will continue to expand and will guide future monitoring and subsequent habitat conservation efforts. As our research answers the questions about the turtles, we can do a better job of protecting them and their habitat in the future.

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