After leaving Aiken, SC and traveling across the South Edisto River, through sandhills along the Fall Line, and up to the east side of Columbia (South Carolina’s state capital), the East Aiken Elementary students arrived at the Congaree National Monument on September 15, 1999. They have completed the first leg of their 36-stop journey. Outside Columbia there are rivers, streams, small ponds and also some backwaters along the Congaree River that are homes for a number of turtle species. Several of the turtle species are in groups we call "sliders" and "cooters." Another species often seen in still, shallow waters such as Carolina bays is the chicken turtle.
Sliders, Cooters, and Ecology
Scientists who study turtles provide a good example of what the science of ecology is all about. "Ecology" is the scientific study of plants, animals, and their environment, and the way in which all three components interact or fit together. Often ecologists, or those scientists who study ecology, are interested in why an organism lives in a particular region, but not elsewhere. Ecologists also attempt to understand all the things that make the numbers of organisms vary so much from year to year, or from place to place. In its simplest form ecology is all about understanding the distribution and abundance of plants and animals. In today’s world ecologists also study the effects of humans on plants, animals, and the environment (for examples, see research projects at the SREL Herp Lab web site).
At the Savannah River Ecology Lab, Dr. Whit Gibbons has spent more than 35 years studying turtles, especially pond turtles like the yellow-bellied slider. As an example of just how complicated and fascinating ecology can be, Dr. Gibbons and other researchers published a 368-page book in 1990 that was solely on the yellow-bellied slider.
There are chapters in the book on what turtles eat, how they grow, when they reproduce and how long they might live. Some sections deal with how big turtles get and how many eggs they have and how big the babies are. Other chapters discuss the habitats turtles prefer, how frequently they might move to new ponds, what their home ranges are, and how far they travel overland. Some chapters list some of the close relatives of the slider turtle, because sometimes to understand the ecology of one species it helps to know something about its relatives. There are 24 chapters in the book, ALL about the ecology of this one species—the yellow-bellied slider! And Dr. Gibbons would probably be the first to admit that we still don’t know everything there is to know about slider turtles.
Think of all the other species of amphibians and reptiles that live in the Southeast, and how little is known about the ecology of so many of them. Studying these animals to learn more so that we can help them and preserve their habitats will be a challenge for many many years to come.