CEDAR FALLS - For an endangered species, wood turtles sure are tough little devils.

"They have a remarkable ability to survive. I see some on the road having been hit by a car or in a field that looks like they've been hit by a disc," said University of Northern Iowa biology professor Jeff Tamplin. "They routinely survive having limbs chewed off."

Yet the wood turtle is rare in Iowa. Tamplin spent 1 1/2 years looking for them before finding his first one. Others had told him they no longer exist in the state.

Tamplin is among about 20 researchers across the country studying wood turtles. He is the only Iowan studying them, and one of just a few in the Midwest. As an endangered species, the wood turtle is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant part of its range within the state.

Last week Tamplin finished a short summer class with 13 UNI students tracking the turtles at a location in Butler County and in West Virginia.

Tamplin has found 60 of the turtles in Iowa since he started researching them in 2003.

He's made a number of discoveries through his research and published several papers. One such discovery was that they eat prairie ragwort, a plant poisonous to most other animals.

Most suspected the turtle population in Butler County was a ghost population, separate from other wood turtles and comprised entirely of adults. That made it more exciting when Tamplin found a juvenile turtle earlier this year.

Another discovery happened during the class session as students found turtles in West Virginia. One student picked up a turtle only to have it defecate on his hand. The unfortunate instance turned to gold, when the fecal material contained a partially digested snake skin, the first proof that wood turtles eat snakes in addition to vegetation, slugs and nightcrawlers.

The wood turtles spend much of their time migrating to fields and woodlands and back to their winter hibernation spots in muddy river banks. They share one of their more endearing traits they share only with humans - the skill of creating ground vibrations to trick earthworms to the surface, thinking it's raining.

"They raise up like doing pushups then drop to the ground," Tamplin said. "It's about as exciting as wood turtles get."

For the students, mostly biology majors of one form or another, the chance to spend three weeks tromping through the woods proved irresistible.

Junior Sam Berg, the champion turtle-finder for the session, said he has always been one to track down little creatures.

"I've grown up around animals. I grew up around horses, and I kept snakes and frogs. My parents didn't like it much," Berg said.

One day last week another student, Devin Weoman, lugged around one turtle that had been caught earlier, then brought back to UNI for evaluation and marking. He noted this one was especially healthy, having all its limbs and tail. Wood turtles frequently lose limbs and tails early in life, as those appendages don't entirely recede into the shell and can be easy targets for raccoons or fox. Tamplin said even with a limb missing, the turtles can survive for their typical life span of 60 or 70 years.

Tamplin suspects populations or the rare turtle remain along the Shell Rock, Cedar, West Fork of the Cedar rivers, and possibly along the Winnebago River.

Contact Jon Ericson at (319) 291-1461 or jonathan.ericson@wcfcourier.com.

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