“We were tracking turtles today!” Juliana Thomas immediately and enthusiastically tells me after I asked her how her day was going; “We’ve never tracked them during the winter before. We don’t know what they’re doing.” Her turtle earrings, almost a perfect tiny replicate of the Eastern Box turtle, sway side to side as she uses her hands to describe the work of her students.

Since 2007 (over eight years at the time of this writing) Juliana’s sixth graders, along with the Centennial Center for Wildlife Education, has been working to track Eastern Box turtles using non-invasive telemetric unit. Together they have helped to track about twenty box turtles in the woods surrounding Lake Raleigh for the better part of the last decade.

And it all started with one lost turtle, named Waldo.

Waldo was found injured on Hillsborough Street (the main thoroughfare in Raleigh) and brought to the NC State Vet School. They repaired his shell and then, before releasing him, affixed a small transmitter to its shell.

Juliana Thomas’ sixth graders first started working in the woods doing biodiversity surveys. The next year they wanted to do more – “The students wanted to do something more meaningful; to do real science and collect real data.” A new project tracking the movement of turtles had just started in the woods surrounding Lake Raleigh, and it was perfect for Juliana’s group of curious sixth graders at Exploris Middle School.

“The students wanted to do something more meaningful; to do real science and collect real data.”

After Waldo was released at Lake Raleigh he wandered all over 100 acres of the forest from 2007 to 2009, for reference, Eastern Box turtles typically stick to a territory of two acres during their lifetime. In 2010 he finally “settled down” to a smaller area before passing away in 2011. And he had also lost a considerable amount of body mass during this time. The students hypothesized that, due to his wandering, he became so fatigued that he eventually wore down and died of a weakened immune system earlier than his projected life expectancy of 40-100 years.

The students use ArcGIS to track turtles and estimate their home ranges. They would know where to find the turtles based on their long-term research.

So what happens when you have a pet turtle that you no longer want? Please don’t release it in a forest. “It’s not good to place a turtle in another beautiful place because it’s not its original home range. They’ll have to go wandering around for years to find another home range. You’re just putting that turtle to die there. Just take them to another family to have as a pet.”

It’s clear that by partnering students with long-term citizen science projects we can see real contributions to science and discovery. Thanks to Juliana Thomas and all of the wonderful educators that we are able to connect with through Students Discover.

Juliana’s students (along with approximately over 500 students over the last decade) are now asking questions about what the turtles are doing during the winter and using data collected over the past decade. The students were able to publish their data in an article that appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Wildlife in North Carolina Magazine titled, “Where’s Waldo? Sixth Grade Students at Exploris Middle School took to the woods to find out.” Juliana Thomas will also be sharing her experiences with tracking turtles at the upcoming and inaugural Citizen Science Association meeting in San Jose, California in a talk titled: “Young Citizen Scientists track Eastern Box Turtles at the Lake Raleigh Area – Making Education & Lifelong Learning Connections.”

If you’d like to learn more about how to get your students involved in citizen science projects go to education.yourwildlife.org.

Header image used with permission from the photographer: Emma Lettie, sixth grade