Of snapping turtles, citizen science and Acadia National Park

UPDATED 7/11/2015: Added map from 2005 National Park Service report showing 29 sites where snapping turtles were found in Acadia and excerpts from conclusion, along with link to full report. And also created a new Anecdata project, Wildlife Sightings in Acadia National Park.

Perhaps you’ve seen a snapping turtle on the trails of Acadia National Park or along the roads of Mount Desert Island this time of year, and wondered if it was a female looking for soft sand or gravel to lay her eggs.

snapping turtle and anecdata

Baby snapping turtle seen while we were hiking near Hadlock Brook in July 2014, uploaded to Anecdata. © MDIBL, Anecdata and contributors

Or maybe you’ve seen a snapper sunning itself on a rock, or a baby turtle making its way toward water, and wondered if such sightings are common.

Now there’s a citizen science database with a snapping turtle project to satisfy your curiosity, as well as to allow you to upload photos and document observations of the reptiles, or of any other aspect of the natural world on Mount Desert Island and beyond.

Anecdata.org, developed by MDI Biological Laboratory’s Community Environmental Health Lab (CEHL), allows crowd-sourcing of data to better create a picture of the changing environment, whether it involves eelgrass, wastewater outfall, the MDI coastline or snapping turtles.

“What I like most about citizen science is that it fundamentally shifts the balance of information, and therefore the balance of power in the favor of ordinary people – in this period of climate change, I think this is extremely important,” said Duncan Bailey, lead developer of Anecdata, which is so new, it is still being beta tested.

snapping turtle

Don’t get too close to this snapping turtle, seen by the side of the road in Brooksville, ME, in May by Anecdata user Acadia. © MDIBL, Anecdata and contributors

So far, the snapping turtle project has 8 contributors with 9 photos, including 2 that we at Acadia on My Mind recently uploaded, of a snapper sunning itself on a rock off the shores of Lower Hadlock Pond, and of a baby turtle near Hadlock Brook.

The project isn’t limited to Mount Desert Island, although Anecdata is based there. One spectacular close-up photo of a snapper by the side of the road was taken in May in Brooksville, ME, by a citizen scientist going by the screen name Acadia. The project lead, going by the screen name NUMAHA, said he came up with the idea because “I wanted to find out where the snapping turtles in Maine are because I think more of them are being killed.”

Snapping turtles capture the imagination in Acadia and Maine

Acadia National Park’s fact sheet, “Mammals, Amphibians, and Reptiles,” lists snapping turtles as common, which it defines as “may be seen daily, in suitable habitat and season, but not in large numbers.”

snapping turtle

Map plots snapping turtles found in Acadia National Park. (Image from 2005 NPS report, Acadia National Park Amphibian and Reptile Inventory)

In a 169-page report published in 2005, Acadia National Park Amphibian and Reptile Inventory, park officials described the snapper as “more cryptic” than the more frequently seen painted turtle, but probably the most common turtle in Maine.

During the period of the inventory in Acadia, March-September 2001, the snapper was found at 29 sites, mostly in wetlands but also crossing roads, such as ME 233 between Little Turtle Pond and Eagle Lake. Interestingly, the report was able to identify one turtle, marked previously by a researcher, as having moved from Hamilton Pond to Northeast Creek. No snappers were found on Isle au Haut during the study period, although the species has been seen in previous years in a marsh near Robinson Point.

turtles crossing the road

Warning to motorists about turtles crossing the road this time of year to lay their eggs. (Image courtesy Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife)

The report concluded that while snappers were considered the most common turtle on Mount Desert Island in 1939, with painted turtles apparently overtaking them in the 1970s, “the results of this survey indicate that snapping turtles continue to be widespread and common, and that the change in their ranked abundance among turtles is due to an increase in painted turtles rather than a decline in snapping turtles. Snapping turtles are among the most tolerant of pollution and habitat degradation, and unlikely to be a conservation concern at Acadia.”

Snappers apparently are of little conservation concern throughout Maine, since the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife spells out the rules for harvesting snapping turtles or their eggs on its Web site’s FAQ section.

Nonetheless, the state department recently posted on its Facebook page a warning to motorists about snapping and other turtles crossing the road this time of year to lay eggs.

Eeelgrass die-off in Frenchman Bay the reason behind Anecdata

While the snapping turtle has captured the imagination of some Acadia fans and Anecdata users, the widespread disappearance of eelgrass in Frenchman Bay is what prompted the development of the online database beginning in 2013, to help CEHL figure out why this critical fish habitat is in decline.

“We needed to crowd-source a presence and disappearance map for eelgrass along the coast of Maine so we could get a better picture of what was going on, but we found that existing citizen science portals were unable to gather the presence and absence data we needed to gather,” said Bailey in an e-mail. That’s when he began developing what’s now become Anecdata.

So far, 11 contributors to the eelgrass project have made 70 posts, including photos, commentary and map coordinates.

There’s seemingly no shortage of ideas for Anecdata, as evidenced by these recent or upcoming projects:

eelgrass

Young Environmental Leaders at MDI Biological Laboratory help restore eelgrass in July 2014, as uploaded to Anecdata by Jane Disney, director of the Community Environmental Health Lab. © MDIBL, Anecdata and contributors

Bar Harbor artist Jennifer Booher, who’s been blogging about her walks along the coast of Mount Desert Island, has made 18 posts on Anecdata about her Coast Walk project, including photos of various types of crabs and waterfowl, and even trash that’s washed ashore.

Another well-known Bar Harbor citizen, Diver Ed (a.k.a. Edward Monat), has 21 posts noting the presence or disappearance of such sea creatures as frilled anemones and sea urchins in Frenchman Bay.

Schoodic Institute and the University of Maine’s Acadia Learning program will be working with high school teachers and students to document the state’s snowpack this coming winter on Anecdata, and how varying snow depth affects habitat for some animals, and migration for others.

And Bailey’s wife, Jordan, an investigative journalist, has used Anecdata to document apparent violations of wastewater outfall permits, as well as to keep track of her personal sightings of flora and fauna, and sightings reported by others.

Going beyond the anecdotal to the power of Anecdata

“Helping the public become more informed about environmental and marine science has always been an important aspect of our work at the MDI Biological Laboratory, and I think that with Anecdata, we’re going to be able to reach a much larger audience than we have before,” said Bailey.

Other reasons Anecdata may reach a broader audience: Its ease of use, in terms of uploading photos, map coordinates and other information; searching and analyzing the database; and downloading data.

It also has democratic appeal: Anyone can start a project, and anyone can join in on someone else’s. All you need to do is create a free log-in, and abide by the terms of service. Photos can be freely downloaded, as long as they are properly credited.

The data can be searched and analyzed by any user according to contributor, project or geographic area, putting the power of knowledge into any citizen scientist’s hands. You can make comments on other people’s projects and contributions, becoming virtual citizen science collaborators. On the snapping turtle project, for instance, Bailey added a comment and link to YouTube videos about snappers, see above, on Acadia’s post from Brooksville.

So far, Anecdata allows people to create “hotspot” collection points to report data over and over again, or pick from over half a million species to keep track of. It’ll soon allow people to upload massive databases. The plan is to eventually offer custom paid services in addition to the free tools, for researchers and organizations to put the power of Anecdata to work for them.

snapping turtle

Snapping turtle suns itself on a rock in Lower Hadlock Pond, in Acadia National Park. We took this photo in May 2011 and uploaded it to Anecdata recently. © MDIBL, Anecdata and contributors

If you’re curious about snapping turtles in Acadia National Park, or any other aspect of the natural world anywhere on the planet, you can get in early on what could become a global science experiment, by participating in Anecdata.

We’ve made one small contribution by uploading photos of snapping turtles we’ve taken over the years in Acadia, as well as the NPS map plotting snappers found in the park in 2001.

If you’ve seen a snapping turtle, whether on Sargent or any of the other 26 peaks of Acadia, or along ME 3 or any of the other major routes around Mount Desert Island, why don’t you, too, consider becoming a citizen scientist collaborator?

Stay tuned as we think about possibly developing an Anecdata science project of our own, for you and others to contribute to. We promise, it would be more fun than the typical high school science project!

3 thoughts on “Of snapping turtles, citizen science and Acadia National Park

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