Turtle Tale


It all started (at least on my end) with reading a post on the CT birdlist about some Nelson’s Sparrows at the Connecticut Audubon Coastal Center.  At the bottom of the post was a single line about a leatherback sea turtle that had washed up on the beach.  I forwarded that email on to our (Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History) collections manager of herpetology and ichthyology, Greg Watkins-Colwell.

Leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) are large turtles that can be found throughout the world.  Not only is it the largest turtle in the world, it’s one of the largest reptiles in the world, only three ‘croccodiles’ are bigger.  Leatherbacks are different from other turtles having a different type of shell, as their name implies.  The latin root for the name Dermo indicates skin and chelys means shell, so they have a ‘shell’ that is covered by skin.  It’s actually a bit more complicated than that…  look for a future blog post.


On October 1st in the waters off of Bridgeport reports of a floating leatherback turtle were recorded.  This is almost certainly the same body that washed ashore in Milford and spotted on October 8th (a week later).  In the few days that would follow the Yale Peabody Museum staff worked with the local, state, and federal departments to obtain permission to collect the turtle as a research and educational specimen.  The government shutdown, with Fish and Wildlife staff on furlough, hindered a rapid response.  Finally, everything was set to collect the turtle on Thursday morning.


Check out local news cast News 12’s video:  http://connecticut.news12.com/news/giant-sea-turtle-washes-up-on-milford-beach-peabody-museum-wants-to-study-carcass-1.6226535

New Haven Register article:  http://www.nhregister.com/general-news/20131009/researchers-want-to-study-sea-turtle-that-washed-ashore-in-milford

Making a quick stop at the site on Wednesday evening, everything looked good to go.  The leatherback was below the high tide line but was being partially buried and there was no real threat of it being taken away by the tide.  What met us on Thursday morning was shocking.


At some point over night someone had poached the turtles head.  We arrived to find the head had been cut off the turtles body.  Leatherback sea turtles are an endangered species in the United States, making the poaching illegal with substantial penalties.

So, Why is the head such a big deal?  The most important reason is that it makes the specimen whole.  For educational purposes the head can illustrate the general form of this specialized jellyfish eater.  For more scientific purposes the head can be used to study brain size and vascilurization of turtles.  Comparing minute anatomical details from this specimen with others could help anser questions like: Do leatherbacks brains grow at different rates? Are the muscles involved in eating different or work differently on leatherback turtles?  How well do Leatherback turtles see?  and many more that have yet to even be asked.

Although, there is still a lot that scientists don’t know about the leatherback sea turtle, there are a few interesting facts.  Leatherbacks, although reptiles, are able to survive in colder water temperature by producing their own body heat, likely because they rarely stop moving and create muscle heat.  Leatherbacks are one of the deepest diving marine animals and can stay under water for up to 70 minutes (MOST dives are only 3-9 minutes).  Also, We know that their primary food source is jellyfish!  The major causes of non-natural deaths in Dermochelys is due to ingestion of plastic bags or balloons and boat propeller strikes.  Think about that before letting your plastic shopping bag blow away.


How did we get the turtle off the beach?  Once we arrived on scene we began to shovel sand away from the sides of the turtle to make it easier to access the body.  The city of Milford was anxious to get the animal off the beach and willing to help science by supplying a front loader tractor to scoop up the turtle.  By this point the turtle was very decomposed, the rear half of the leatherback was pretty much falling apart.  And Yes, it smelled… a lot.  Once the turtle was in the tractor it was carried to a pick-up truck and dropped into the bed.


A follow up from News 12 about the head:  http://connecticut.news12.com/news/head-of-giant-milford-sea-turtle-stolen-1.6233882

WTNH video with removal footage:  http://www.wtnh.com/news/new-haven-cty/dead-sea-turtle-washes-ashore-in-milford

From there the turtle was transported to a piece of Yale property that isn’t open to the public.  With very large animals, often the best way to prepare them for skeletal use is by using nature.  We wrapped the turtle in mesh to inhibit large mammals from upsetting the body and buried it underground.  The leatherback will now slowly decay, the bacteria on and in the body have already started to breakdown the soft tissues.  Insects, worms, and other small animals will aid in the process by cleaning/ eating the soft tissue away from the bone.  After a year or so, staff will return to the burial site to excavate the skeleton for research.  Maybe someone will want to use the bones to study flipper movement with the carpals or spine development of the vertebrae.


If you know anything about the poached turtle head, please let us or the authorities know.  (comment anonymously even)  I hope that it is someone who didn’t realize what the legal aspect was and didn’t mean to commit a crime.  I also hope that it is someone who can realize how scientifically and educationally valuable the skull is to science.  This is my personal plea that the person who took the skull will return it to us.  Not only have they taken it from the museum but they have also taken it away from you and anyone who has visited the museum.  This is one amazing animal with an amazing story that will now likely never end up on exhibit.

sad turtle

If you want to read a horrible article by the Connecticut Post (note this is even a revision of an even worse first rendition):  http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Turtle-remains-removed-from-Milford-beach-4887938.php


Information was obtained by Wikipedia as viewed 14 October 2013 and by some of the scholarly articles on the wiki page references.  Additional information is taken from personal communications with Yale Peabody Museum collections manager, Greg Watkins-Colwell.


Walking on Webs

It’s that time of year again when I get lots of photos, videos, and requests to identify ‘this spider’.   Usually the adjectives that are go along with the description include: huge, gross, creepy, and annoying.  I’d like to go ahead and say that I think better adjectives would be: amazing, industrious, elegant, and nimble.  Well, if you are simply looking for a name and don’t care about anything else you will be happy to know they are called, Hentz’s orb weaver, a spider in the family Araneidae.  If you want to learn a bit more why they are so amazing read on.

Hentz's Orb Weaver:  note the web details

Hentz’s Orb Weaver: note the web details

The scientfic name for the spider is Neoscona crucifera and is closely related to a few other species that are found throughout North America.  Although the family is distributed around the world.  This particular species is a late bloomer of sorts.  Depending on what latitude you live in, the males don’t reach adulthood until mid summer and females a couple of weeks later.  That’s the reason that they start to make showing (and I start to get questions) close to the end of summer.

Dorsal View with Prey

Dorsal View with Prey

Females build a conspicous web (up to 2 feet) in places that have the greatest chances of catching pray.  With houses that ends up being assocaited with outdoor lights that attract insects and for most people that means right by their front doors.  Hentz’s orbweaver is a nocturnal species and females can spin a web in about one hour or less.  Often webs can be found first thing in the morning without spiders and it isn’t until dark that they will emerge from a hidden retreat to wait for pray.  They will usually rebuild a new web every night and the coolest part about it…. they eat their old web first!

When an insect lands in the web the spiders will quickly judge if they should make their move or not.  The orbweaver will quickly run over, partially wrap the prey in silk before injecting the venom using their fangs.  The venom usually slows down the prey quickly, the spider will then continue to wrap the insect up and let it sit until it’s ready for a snack.

Upgrading the Collections

Working in a natural history museum (or any museum), there are a number of truths that you learn early on.  Not all collections spaces are made equal and the collections will ALWAYS grow.  As stewards of these scientific objects and specimens, our goal is to improve the way in which we house our collections.  Not only are we always looking for new materials for archival containers but we also look at the big picture, the rooms in which they are kept.


Carriage System for Upgraded Shelving

Currently, the Yale Peabody Museum is in the middle of an upgrade for our fluid collections that are in the Yale West Campus Collections Storage Center.  In this case we are moving in to a newly refurbished section of the building that has allowed us to put in rolled compact storage.  Instead of having stationary shelving units, the new fluid room has shelving on wheels, making it possible to get more collections in to a smaller space.


Compactors with some shelving set-up

Here are a few in-process pictures of the installation of the new rolled storage system.  As awesome as this installation is, the amount of change before this, thanks to hard work of the contractors on the space is even more amazing.  Once the room is completed, I’ll post more pictures including the new work room and with some collections in place.  It’s exciting times!


Contractors and Peabody staff testing the new system

(that’s our Director of Collections and Operations, Tim White on the floor)

Photo of the Month 2

This male sachem skipper was erroneously identified as a Peck’s by myself in a post on the CT butterfly list serve.  I was informed that is infact Atalopedes campestri (sachem).  This species is known as a more southernly species but in recent years there have been numerous sightings in the state.  Last year I saw a good sized population at work and then this year there were even more.  The previous late dates listed for the state were 10/27/2007 and 10/31/2009.  I took this cellphone picture on 11/6/2012 making for a NEW STATE RECORD.  wahoo.  Records are kept by the Connecticut Buttlerfly Association.  Check them out!

Spring Colors

I know it sounds like this should be a blog about flowers, but it’s not. It’s about butterflies. This week has brought an onslaught of butterflies moving across Yale West Campus. The listserv has been alive with reports of bird watchers on the shore amazed at the number of ‘angelwing’ butterlies moving onshore. On campus we are just over 1 mile away from the West Haven beach (as the crow or butterfly flies) and the butterflies are moving North.

Question Mark warming on a rock

Question Mark

 Thanks to a great book called the Connecticut Butterfly Atlas I have recently discovered that a couple of butterflies in the ‘angelwing’ group don’t overwinter in CT but actually move north in the spring. With the amazingly warm weather this week it seems like this has begun.

Cabbage White


The cabbage white butteflies have been around on campus since March 8th (the first sighting of the year). A few of weeks after that we had sulphur butterflies and on April 4th we had our first skipper of the year, Juvenal’s duskywing.

Juvenal's Duskywing

Juvenal's Duskywing

I finally grabbed my camera today and got a couple pictures of some of the butterflies moving through campus. Most of the time they are not stopping but just heading straight through making it difficult to photograph. But I managed to find a little patch of flowers that slowed a couple down.

Red Admiral

Red Admiral

 Three species have been seen this week to add to our list. Eastern comma, red admiral, Eastern tiger swallowtail and question mark butterflies have all been seen on campus and are all first of the year. The first two listed are actually new to our total list that we started midsummer last year. It’s a fun time to be outside!

Question Mark

Question Mark (top side)

The Blooms of February

I took a quick walk around campus on a warm day this week.  On an old gravel path that’s starting to succumb to nature, a very small plant caught my eye.  In between the clouds drifting by and Red-tailed Hawks distracting my attention, I managed a few shots in the sun.

Notice the small white bi-lobed petals and yellow centers to the flowers.  The name is Draba verna, or Whitlow Grass, a native of Europe and West Asia and in the mustard family.   The listed flowering time is March to May, so it seems to be a couple weeks ahead with this mild winter.

I also stumbled across this yellow Composite on one of the islands in the middle of a parking lot.  Composites, is a familiar name used to describe plant that have flowers that actually have two types of flowers in a single inflorescence.  If you think of a sunflower, the dark center is actually composed of small disk flowers and the yellow ‘petals’ are separate ray flowers.

Unknown Composite

I’m still working on identifying this one.  It looks like it’s blooming although the flowers don’t look completely open.  I would guess that it’s not native.  A lot of these scrubby flowers that grow in disturbed areas don’t originate in Connecticut or even in North America.  It just illustrates how important undisturbed mature habitat is to protect native species.