CHS Blog

Experiential Learning and Diversity in Herpetology: Field Research In Ecology and Evolution Diversified

March 14, 2024
Reta Lingrui Meng, PhD Candidate at McMaster University
Aaninguaq Peterson, Alumni, University of Toronto

Field Research in Ecology and Evolution Diversified (FREED) is a grassroots organization whose goal is to increase access to field research experience, community building, and career mentorship for Indigenous, Black, and/or Racialized (BIPOC) students. The approach of FREED is to provide a rigorous and safe field work experience for primarily undergraduate students who share a passion for ecology, evolution, and conservation biology so that they have the skills and network to be competitive in advancing their careers. We have hosted multiple weeklong and weekend events that featured interactive workshops, talks, and experiential learning experiences. We started our initiative at University of Toronto two years ago and are continuing to grow our audience in post-secondary institutions across Ontario, with further plans for expansion into other provinces and territories in Canada.

An introduction to radio telemetry.
Photo: Samantha Stephens

In August 2023, we hosted our weeklong field camp at the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station (AWRS), where we welcomed 13 new undergraduate students from the University of Toronto. At the AWRS, where a long history of excellence in herpetology research exists, we couldn't pass on the chance to host a herpetology workshop for the students. This year, I (Reta Meng, Chow-Fraser lab, McMaster University) hosted a Turtle 101 workshop, which focused on radio telemetry, hoop net trapping, and bog mat hopping. I started the workshop with an introduction on the life history, behaviour, and conservation of freshwater turtles in Ontario. I then read a passage from Gathering Moss by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in which Dr. Kimmerer described her experience walking barefoot on bog mats. I built on the vivid imagery in the reading to prepare the students for the upcoming bog mat hopping portion of the workshop. As the group got the canoes ready to go, students formed groups of two to rotate through three stations. I led the radio telemetry portion, where I hid two Blanding's Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) plushies (affectionately named Joe and John) among the bog mats, each equipped with a radio tag. The students learned how to use a radio telemetry unit, and each student had the opportunity to track down the 'turtles.' The two other groups canoed around the beautiful pond, checking baited hoop net traps for turtles, and hopping onto the bog mats to observe Sphagnum moss and pitcher plants. Each student had a chance to rotate through all three stations to provide a comprehensive learning experience!

Meet and greet with a Midland Painted Turtle.
Photo: Reta Meng

This experience greatly furthered my love for herpetology, fieldwork, and inspiring the next generation of wildlife biologists. It was heartwarming for me to see that we were able to remove systemic barriers for students who attended FREED, and that I had the privilege to share my passion and fieldwork techniques with them. I am very grateful that the Canadian Herpetological Society supported our herpetology workshops over the past two years through financial donations. This contribution made it possible for us to run three herpetology-based workshops over these two events.

Testimonial from our past participant - Aaninguaq Peterson

Meet and greet with a Midland Painted Turtle.
Photo: Reta Meng

The turtle workshop was the highlight of the week for me as a FREED participant! My previous research experience was focused on evaluating the geological impacts of extraction work on muskeg/bog ecosystems, but this work was remote and didn't require any fieldwork. After having spent so long learning about and studying the connections between animals and bog sediment profiles, I was excited to jump in and experience what fieldwork in this environment might be like. After a short walk out to the site, we hopped in a canoe and scanned the edges of the bog mats – quickly finding a Midland Painted Turtle sunning himself after the colder weather earlier in the week. Reta's expert hoop net trapping skills made quick work of tipping him safely into the canoe, where best handling practice, cursory health checks, and a conversation about turtle toenails and tagging taught me more about this species than my previous coursework and research assistant work combined. Because turtles are species-at-risk, I was cautious about interacting with them, and this opportunity to get up-close encouraged me to more seriously consider graduate programs specializing in amphibians and reptiles (something that had previously been too intimidating). Once we'd released the turtle, we climbed out onto the bog mat and got to see pitcher plants and other plant life that had adapted to the low-nitrogen conditions atop the Sphagnum. This opportunity and the connections I made during this workshop have been the single most impactful experience of my undergraduate career, and I am incredibly grateful for the time and planning undertaken to deliver such an amazing afternoon with these animals!

Midland Painted Turtle captured during hoop trapping
(All species-at-risk were handled with appropriate permits).

Photo: Reta Meng