Professor finds his passion in researching endangered turtles By Jill Gerig Published: Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Associate Professor Nick Geist of Sonoma State's biology department has dedicated three years and counting to the study of the Western Pond Turtle species that is nearing extinction.
"It is exciting to go home everyday and realize that I didn't just do my ordinary job, but that I helped an amazing species who is suffering. It's a good feeling knowing that we are helping out little by little by doing good science," Geist said. Geist has worked closely with graduate student Zannie Dallara and undergrad Katie Desmond during this experimental process. They are collaborating with the California's Department of Fish and Game to help revise the strategy to prevent Western Pond Turtle extinction. The team has also worked closely with the San Francisco and Oakland zoos in the "Head Start" program.
"My favorite part of this research is that I get to work hands-on with my study species, both in the field in Lake County and in captivity at the San Francisco and Oakland zoos as well as at SSU," said Dallara. Geist and his team provide the newly hatched baby turtles with an incubator and comfortable lifestyle in their lab in Darwin Hall. After only three short months in the incubator, the baby turtles go to the Oakland or San Francisco zoo where they are then taken care of. After that, they have a "head start" and can survive at their original home in the wild a much earlier age. Geist started his research in Lake County, where he and the team would camp out and simply watch for turtles. They began to catch on that the turtles typically arrived around 4 p.m. daily.
From there, they tracked the turtles with radios all the way to their nesting area where they would then collect the eggs. Once the eggs were collected, the team would either protect the nest from predators with a wire covering or bring them back to the lab for experimenting.
"I am so drawn to this research because of the hands-on work with a species of special concern in California. I love how in-line this project is with my research interests and career goals," said Dallara.
After her grad work with Geist, Dallara plans to get her PhD and DVM (Doctor of Veterinarian Medicine Degree). She ultimately wants to work with captive breeding programs for species recovery efforts.
Geist is a paleontologist, meaning he studies forms of life from existing or pre historic times such as dinosaurs and flying reptiles.
His fascination with the Western Pond Turtles developed after realizing how threatened and close to extinction they are.
According to Geist, turtles have been around for 230 million years and through evolution, have barely changed.
Up until about 50 years ago, the turtle population has decreased significantly across the planet.
"As humans, we are hurting their habitats by building housing developments on their land and introducing predators," said Geist.
"There are over 300 species of turtles and two thirds of them are in extreme danger of extinction."
Geist and his team are specifically interested in the reproductive biology of the Western Pond Turtle.
In addition, they are studying how different temperature levels in the nesting areas can determine the sex of the turtle.
There is still unknown information about how these turtles reproduce, so they are working to continue the research and get answers.
"If we can figure out how they reproduce then that just means we are one step closer to preventing extinction," said Geist.
Geist and his team of researching students are excited about the differences they are making to the turtle population.
"We can help this cause by cleaning up our mess and respecting wildlife," said Geist.
"My students know that they can't help every endangered turtle out there, but they know that every little bit helps and that we are making a difference."
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