Nicholas School Student Organizes Turtle Relocation in Duke Gardens

October 21, 2009

Laura Cloak, MEM '11, Student Communications Assistant

DURHAM, N.C. – A plan to turn a small pond in the Duke Gardens into a sedimentation pond this winter could have spelled disaster for the turtles who called it home. But thanks to a group of nine Nicholas School students, 11 turtles have been rescued and safely relocated to another pond in the gardens.

Second-year Master of Environmental Management student Maura Nowalk spearheaded the relocation after hearing about the plan to empty and dredge the pond, which she knew to be a home to many turtles.

“Knowing that a lot of the work was planned for the winter months, I was concerned that much of the construction would be done while the turtles were hiding and vulnerable, and that there would be a significant number that wouldn’t make it as a result of this project if something wasn’t done,” says Nowalk, who is vice president of the Duke Student Association of Wetland Scientists (SAWS). .

Through her contacts at the Duke University Wetland Center, Nowalk connected with Paul Jones, a curator at the Duke Gardens, who had alerted the Wetland Center after hearing about the plans to turn the pond as a sedimentation pond as part of a new hospital construction project. Nowalk worked with Jones to schedule a turtle rescue day on Friday, Oct. 16, before the animals began hibernating.

“I knew there were a lot of people at the Nicholas School who would be interested in a project where we got to get in the mud and save some turtles,” she says.

To make the turtles easier to find, Jones lowered the water level in the pond to concentrate the turtles in a smaller area. By noon, the water level was low enough to allow the students to begin. Throughout the afternoon, they used hand nets to try to catch as many turtles as they could find.

“Some people sank to their waists in muck, and it took some time and energy to wiggle them out,” Nowalk says.

The NicNats, a student group at the Nicholas School dedicated to improving student interaction with the natural world, teamed up with Nowalk and her SAWS volunteers on the rescue and relocation project.

By day’s end, 11 turtles in all were caught, with five species represented. Although she had expected to find more turtles, Nowalk considers the event a success. “We got nine people outside, they learned some things about turtles, and we saved 11 turtles that might otherwise have been killed during the construction,” she says.

The turtles were relocated into a bigger pond at Duke Gardens. A fence, installed part of the way around the old pond, will help discourage them from returning to their old home.