Cutting the toenails of a Snapping Turtle may seem like a bad idea, but there’s really a good reason it; stay tuned. I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.
Hopkins: Well, one of the main species of turtles that we work with are snapping turtles and that’s because they’re top-level predators. They basically eat a lot of fish, a lot of rotting things in the aquatic systems that they inhabit, and they can live for a very long time.
Bill Hopkins is an ecotoxicologist who studies the effects of pollutants on the environment, working with animals like snapping turtles.
Hopkins: So, snapping turtles, we know can live over 50 years. They stay in one area their entire life. They’re really good for monitoring things like pollutants in the environment because we can actually recapture the same individual, even decades later, and determine whether or not their accumulation has changed with time.
And we’ve been showing that females transfer significant amounts of mercury to their eggs, and this results in reduced hatching success. And this reduced hatching success is primarily due to higher rates of infertility. And it’s also caused due to embryo toxicity, which simply means that the embryo, during the early stages of development, for some reason, the mercury disrupts that development and causes the embryo to die before it can hatch.
Now snapping turtles have long powerful nails, somewhat similar to our fingernails.
Hopkins: That tissue actually has a lot of mercury in it. And so, we can take a pair of fingernail clippers, clip a little tip off of that nail, and analyze it in the lab to determine how much mercury this turtle’s been exposed to. What we’ve done is we’ve developed a technique where you can take a little clip of toenail and determine, or at least estimate, whether or not that female turtle might actually be at risk of reproductive harm.
We’ll hear more about snapping turtles and mercury in future programs. Pulse of the Planet is made possible in part by Virginia Tech, inventing the future through a hands-on approach to education and research.