Turtle rescue

May 21, 2019 • 11:00 am

by Greg Mayer

Midland painted turtles (Chrysemy picta marginata) are the most abundant turtles in southeastern Wisconsin, and they live in and nest around Greenquist Pond, the pond right outside the building where my office is. Hatchlings don’t always walk the right way from their wintering abodes, and need help if they are to survive.

On May 9, 2019 (almost exactly five years since a similar reptile rescue), a group of students found this hatchling on its back on the concrete plaza between the lower levels of Wyllie and Comm Arts, 100 or more yards from the Pond.

Hatchling midland painted turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata), UW-Parkside, Somers, WI, May 9, 2019

Knowing who to go to for reptile advice, they brought the little fellow to me. Given its size, and its incompletely healed umbilical scar, this turtle hatched last summer (2018), and may have overwintered in the nest, emerging this spring. The turtles often nest in the area to the south and southeast of the Pond, and this one must have headed the wrong way after its winter nap.

Hatchling midland painted turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata), UW-Parkside, Somers, WI, May 9, 2019. Note the incompletely healed umbilical scar.

At my suggestion, the students took the turtle to the Pond, and released it in the shallows at its NE corner, where it could make its home with the other painted turtles, including, in all probability, its parents.

The students who rescued the turtle, and released it in Greenquist Pond. The turtle is cupped in one of the rescuers’ hands.

Toad rescue

August 18, 2016 • 1:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how I periodically engage in turtle or frog and toad “rescues”, taking animals that had fallen into human made traps, such as window wells and stairwells, and releasing them, sometimes after feeding them for a while in captivity to fatten them up prior to release. A couple of days ago I decided to stop and check a stairwell on my campus, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, where I’ve previously found toads and a turtle, and sure enough I found a young American toad (Bufo americanus), about 30 mm in snout-vent length, hunkered down in some leaf litter at the bottom of the stairs. I took the little fellow’s picture with a lady bug, the type of beetle made famous by Jerry’s academic grandfather Theodosius Dobzhansky.

American Toad with ladybug in stairwell, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Somers, Wisconsin,16 August 2016.
American Toad with ladybug in stairwell, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Somers, Wisconsin, 16 August 2016.

The beetle of course was not trapped, and could just fly away when it wanted to. I checked the same stairwell again the next day. It had rained in the general area the previous night, which might encourage toads to be moving about– and thus fall down the stairs– but I wasn’t sure if it had rained on campus.  There were two more American toads. These were smaller, about 18 mm snout-vent length. (A penny is about 19 mm in diameter.) These two were hopping about— they had just fallen in, and were in good shape. The toad from the previous day, although it looked good, may have been stuck in the stairwell for some days during a generally dry period, and was not active, but rather hiding in the leaf litter.

American Toads from stairwell, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Somers, Wisconsin,17 August 2016.
American Toads from stairwell, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Somers, Wisconsin, 17 August 2016.

Here’s the stairwell, on the northern side of the Communication Arts building, in which the toads (and last year a painted turtle) got trapped. This year’s larger toad was under the leaves on the far right. Once they go down a step, they cannot climb back up, and they get ratcheted to the bottom.

Stairwell at UW-Parkside, NE corner of Comm Arts extension, 16 August, 2016.

I released these toads immediately after photographing them in Greenquist Woods, shown in the photo below, approximately under the large basswood leaves visible at the right. You can see how the ground slopes down to the left– just behind that screen of bushes is Greenquist Pond, which is where the toads breed, and the painted turtles live.

Greenquist Woods, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Somers, Wisconsin,16 August 2016.
Greenquist Woods, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Somers, Wisconsin, 16 August 2016.

Here’s Greenquist Pond looking north, with Greenquist Woods to the north and east, a lawn area (not well seen) behind bushes to the west, with a sidewalk and lawn edging to the south (from where the photo was taken).

Greenquist Pond, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Somers, Wisconsin,16 August 2016.
Greenquist Pond, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Somers, Wisconsin, 16 August 2016.

The smaller toads were recent transformlets from tadpoles this season. The 30 mm toad was a bit puzzling. Either it’s a transformlet from earlier this year which has grown quite a bit, or it’s a one year old from last year’s brood. It seems too small, based on my experience of toad growth in captivity, to be a year old, yet it seems odd to have in just one breeding season such a wide size range in the season’s transformlets (18 to 30 mm). I’ve not quite worked out the breeding phenology of the toads– perhaps I should figure this out.

After releasing the 30 mm toad in the woods the first day, I stopped at the Pond with the colleague who accompanied me, and there we found many small frogs that jumped in the water. At the size of those we saw, you need to get a good look at them to tell bull frogs (Rana catesbeiana) from Green frogs (Rana clamitans)– both species occur in the Pond. They all were diving quickly in the water, and we had no binoculars to get a close look at those that surfaced in the water, but one large individual sat still and let me approach. It was a large adult male green frog:  a green frog, because the dorsolateral ridge extends from the eye over the ear and along the side toward the groin (in bull frogs, the ridge curls round the ear); and a male, because the ear is larger in diameter than the eye.

Large male Green Frog in Greenquist Pond, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Somers, Wisconsin,16 August 2016.
Large male Green Frog in Greenquist Pond, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Somers, Wisconsin, 16 August 2016.

Birds of Stone: Avian Fossils from the Age of Dinosaurs

January 27, 2016 • 8:00 am

by Greg Mayer

This coming Monday, February 1, at 7 PM in the Student Union Cinema, the University of Wisconsin-Parkisde will present Luis Chiappe, Director of the Dinosaur Institute of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, will speak on “Birds of Stone: Avian Fossils from the Age of Dinosaurs”.

Dr. Luis Chiappe of the LACM
Dr. Luis Chiappe of the LACM

Many of the features commonly associated with birds (feather, wings, hollow bones, wishbones) were inherited from their dinosaurian ancestors, and these features arose at various times during the birds’ long Mesozoic history. New fossils have laid out this evolutionary saga in great detail, allowing us to trace the changes from the earliest birds, such as Archaeopteryx, to the dawn of modern birds. The talk, part of UW-Parkside’s Science Night series, is intended for the general public.

At noon on Monday, in Molinaro Hall D 139, Dr. Chiappe will present a more technical talk at the Biological Sciences Colloquium entitled “Birding in the Mesozoic: Recent Insights on the Early Evolution of Birds”. There’s also a small exhibit in the UWP Library, “Dinosaurs and Birds: The Art of Science”, that you can stop in and see.

Both talks are free and open to the public. For the evening talk, parking in the Student Union lot is free after 6:30 PM. For the noon talk, there are metered spots, but if any WEIT readers are planning to come, email and I’ll see what we can do. The talks are presented in conjunction with the exhibit “Dinosaurs Take Flight: The Art of Archaeopteryx”, by Silver Plume Exhibitions in conjunction with the Yale Peabody Museum, at the Kenosha Public Museum, on display now through March 27th.


This is a very well done exhibit, combining fine reproductions of almost all of the eleven known Archaeopteryx specimens (the real ones almost never travel!), with an exploration of how several distinguished paleo-artists create their works, including Julius Cstonyi, whose work we’ve highlighted here at WEIT before.

Anyone from Chicago to Milwaukee is within range, and you can make a day of it– the exhibit at the KPM, two talks, and a stop in UWP’s Library. Even if you can’t make it Monday, the exhibit at KPM is well worth a trip on some other day. Here’s a tidbit– a realistic sculpture– from Dinosaurs Take Flight; I hope to post a fuller report later.

Archaeopteryx at its nest.
Archaeopteryx at its nest.


Reptile rescue

June 11, 2015 • 1:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Update: Yesterday afternoon on the way home, at about 5:30 PM, just hours after posting this, I came across a large snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) crossing in the middle of the road. It was a windy 2-lane road with a mix of homes, woodland, and fields (Wood Road, between A and KR in Somers, WI). The car ahead of me maneuvered around the turtle, and pulled into a long driveway. I pulled off just behind the turtle (though my car was still half on the road– there’s really no shoulder there), put on my flashers, got out and picked it up. It was big, 11.5 inches carapace length (measured by marking off on a stiff map I had in the car– I didn’t have a meter stick with me), a smooth shell with lots of algae growing on it, and very snappy– much more so than a captive turtle that’s used to people: a magnificent specimen. I tried one-handing it by the back of the shell, but couldn’t do it, so I grabbed one thigh in each hand and held it with its plastron toward my leg (so it couldn’t reach out and bite me, which it wanted to do). The driveway that the car went in led up hill into the woods, and I didn’t see anyone. There were no obvious bodies of water to bring it to, so I rang the bell at the house where I parked, but it looked dark. Looking back down the road, I saw a guardrail (which are often placed by ditches/water), walked down to it, and found a small creek going under the road coming out of a fairly dense woods, so I let it go on the edge. (A big frog jumped out of the way as I let it go!) As I walked back to my car, the neighbor whose bell I had rung came to the side of the road. As I explained, he said there were five ponds back in the woods where I’d let it go, and that he saw big snappers wandering around occasionally, although not one that big recently. He was a good observer, since he knew details about snappers that most people don’t. We both thought it would be just fine back there, which was in fact probably where it had come from. Unfortunately, I did not have camera to take a picture. This morning on the way to campus, I checked the road carefully– no carcass or blood stains. It either stayed in the creek/woods/ponds, or if it persisted in trying to cross, it made it across safely.


I am occasionally contacted by local or state authorities to assist in identifying, capturing, and/or taking care of reptiles that have, for various reasons, come to their attention. Sometimes this involves animals that are suspected of being inadequately cared for; such cases have come to be called “rescues”, a term that I am not entirely happy with, but which I use since everyone else does. There are cases though where the animal needs rescue, even though no direct human action has caused its predicament. Here are two such cases.

Early in May, I went out one evening with a friend and his son to look for frogs and toads, to help his son work on his Reptile and Amphibian Study merit badge. We were heading to Greenquist Pond, a small, artificial farm pond, now surrounded on two sides by woodland, on my campus. I decided to stop at an outside stairwell to the basement of a building near the pond, knowing that small animals can go down the stairs, but not up. In the leaf litter at the bottom of the stairs, my friend found a hatchling midland painted turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata).

Chrysemys picta marginata, UW-Parkside, Kenosha, WI, 6 May 2015.
Chrysemys picta marginata, UW-Parkside, Kenosha, WI, 6 May 2015.

When first found, the turtle was entirely immobile–  I feared it was dead. A few minutes of being held in the hand, though, warmed it up, and it became active. We brought it back to the lab to be measured (26 mm carapace length) and photographed. Left in the stairwell, it would have undoubtedly died, as the steps were much too high for it to climb up, and in the stairwell it would have starved, died of cold, or been eaten (by a visiting bird or raccoon, or perhaps by a shrew, which also get trapped in stairwells and starve, but will eat anything down there with them before they do). We went on to see and/or hear at one or more of Greenquist Pond, Desch Pond, and the Willow Swamp bull frogs (Rana catesbeiana), green frogs (Rana clamitans), American toads (Bufo americanus) and chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata).

The hint of red you can see on the marginal scutes in the photo above is well developed on the plastron.

Plastron of hatchling painted turtle.
Plastron of hatchling painted turtle.

The turtle was a hatchling, but was from 2014’s egglaying. It had hibernated over the winter (perhaps in the nest), had emerged in spring 2015, but made a wrong turn on the way to the pond, and found itself in the stairwell. Once over the first step, it was ratcheted down to the bottom– it can fall down a step, but cannot go up a step. I was very glad to see it, since I had not found any painted turtle nests near the pond for some years, and feared that changes in land use around the pond might have turned the resident painted turtles into a non-reproducing population. The hatchling proves they are reproducing, and the location of the stairwell relative to the pond indicates they are nesting at least close to where they used to, although I’ve not found the nests.

After a few days in the lab, it was time to release the little fellow in the pond. Here he is on a patch of moss near the edge of the pond.

Chrysemys picta marginata, UW-Parkside, Kenosha, WI, 6 May 2015.
Hatchling painted turtle about to enter Greenquist Pond, UW-Parkside, Kenosha, WI.

And here he is entering the water.

The previous September, I had found five American toads (Bufo americanus) in that same stairwell, and seven more in a deep (ca. 20 feet) window well outside my building (which is also quite close to Greenquist Pond and adjacent patch of woods). I typically go down the ladder into the window well when out with my vertebrate zoology class, because we often find trapped vertebrates in there (frogs, toads, small rodents). We brought the toads back to the lab for identification and measurement. Some of them were quite emaciated, and I decided to hold on to these for a bit to try to fatten them up before releasing them. Another was one of the largest American toads I’ve ever found around here, and I kept her to get some photos. But after releasing the others, the weather got cold before they fattened up or I got a chance to take photos, so I wound up keeping the big female and one of the emaciated toads over the winter (the other emaciated toad was eaten by the big female!). I released them in Greenquist Woods the same day this spring that I released the turtle.

American toads, Greenquist Woods, UW-Parkside, Kenosha, WI.
American toads, Greenquist Woods, UW-Parkside, Kenosha, WI.

Here they are (above), just after release, the formerly emaciated male on the left, the big female on the right. At the time of capture, the female was 75 mm snout-vent length. When released, she’d grown to 84 mm, and weighed 84 g. I’m not sure exactly how big the emaciated male was when captured, because I didn’t segregate the measurements of the emaciated ones I kept, but the set of smaller ones caught had sizes ranging from 20-32 mm. By the time of release he’d grown to 66 mm and weighed 31 g, and gotten kind of chubby even. He had also sexually matured, having keratinous nuptial thumb pads, grabbing onto the female’s back and holding tight (as males do during amplexus), and giving the “release” call when squeezed at the waist (as males and unreceptive females will do). In the wild, of course, he would not have grown over the winter, and thus may have sexually matured a year earlier relative to his cohort.

Here are portraits of them, taken just before or just after release.

Male Bufo americanus, UW-Parkside.
Male Bufo americanus, UW-Parkside.
Female Bufo americanus, UW-Parkside.
Female Bufo americanus, UW-Parkside.

I’d mentioned that these animals’ predicaments were not due to direct human action, but their need for rescue did arise from human action– essentially we’ve dotted the landscape with inescapable pits– just not from actions directed at the animals.

(And of course, toads are amphibians, but ‘reptile rescue’ is more terse and euphonious.)

Darwin Day, 2014, events in Kenosha, Wisconsin

February 4, 2014 • 2:34 pm

by Greg Mayer

Darwin’s birthday, Feb. 12, is fast upon us, so, for those in the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor, I’d like to announce three upcoming events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the approximate center of the megalopolis.

First, on Darwin Day itself, Wednesday, February 12, Scott Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside will be speaking at 7 PM in Greenquist Hall 103 on “Intracellular Stowaways: Cells that Live Within Cells”. There are many symbioses between cells, including the famous one that led to certain bacteria becoming mitochondria and chloroplasts. The talk will pay particular attention to intracellular stowaways found in mosquitoes.

Then, on Thursday, February 13, it’s Science Movie Night in Greenquist Hall 103 at UW-Parkside, with a showing of  “Flock of Dodos” by scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson.

Darwin Day 2014 UWP filmAnd on Saturday, February 15, it’s Darwin Day at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum, including family events on the main floor, and three short talks in the classroom, including one by yours truly on “The Evidence for Evolution“.

Darwin Day 2014 DDM

Also, on Wednesday morning, February 12, from about 8:10 AM to 9 AM I’ll be talking live with Greg Berg on WGTD 91.1 FM’s “Morning Show“, talking about Darwin and the evidence for evolution. On the following morning, Nick Wiersum, Curator of Natural History Education for the Kenosha Public Museums, will also make a brief appearance on the “Morning Show”, about 8:50 AM to 9 AM.

All the events are free and open to the public. UW-Parkside is easily accessible via I-94, and the Dinosaur Discovery Museum is in downtown Kenosha, overlooking Civic Center Park from the west.

The Darwin Day events are the result of a collaboration between the Kenosha Public Museum’s Dinosaur Discovery Museum, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and Carthage College. Nick Wiersum of KPM and Chris Noto of UWP are the lead organizers.

Darwin Day in Wisconsin

February 7, 2010 • 12:20 pm

by Greg Mayer

The Darwin bicentennial year ends this week, as Friday, February 12th, begins the 201st year. The last event in the University of Wisconsin-Parkside’s Darwin 1809-1859-2009 commemoration is this coming Wednesday, Feb. 10, at 7 PM in Greenquist Hall 103, where I will be speaking on “The Origin of The Origin.

In the talk, I’ll take a look at the surprisingly dramatic circumstances of the publication of The Origin on November 24, 1859.  In the spring of 1858, while at work on his “species book”, Darwin received a manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace, a correspondent of his working in the Malay Archipelago. In Wallace’s manuscript, Darwin saw his own theory in miniature, and despaired that his originality would be forestalled. Darwins’ friends Charles Lyell and J.D. Hooker arranged for a joint publication by Darwin and Wallace; Darwin, now spurred on, completed an “abstract” of his species book: the Origin, which, at 500 pages, was a rather substantial abstract. (Jerry was an earlier speaker in the series; video here.)

On Saturday, the 201st anniversary year gets off to a bang with the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s annual Darwin Day. There’ll be a full day of activities, headlined by my friend and colleague Jonathan Losos, who’ll speak on “Leaping Lizards!  Studies of Ecology and Evolution in the Caribbean”. Over the lunch break there’s a workshop for teachers on lizards and island biogeography, and I’ll be participating. In the afternoon, there’ll be a panel discussion on communicating science, which might be of some interest to WEIT blog readers.

Both events are intended for general audiences, and are free and open to the public. If you’re in the area, please come. Details of both events, including schedules and directions, are here for Parkside (in Kenosha, just north of Illinois) and here for Madison.

Jerry on ‘Why Evolution is True’ at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside

December 1, 2009 • 10:30 am

by Greg Mayer

As part of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside’s Darwin 1809-1859-2009 series commemorating the Darwin bicentennial and Origin sesquicentennial (some of the earlier events noticed here and here), Jerry spoke on ‘Why Evolution is True’ on Sept. 9 of this year. Here’s the video of his talk; that’s me doing the intro. (I’m not mic’ed, and the volume starts out low, but Jerry is mic’ed, and the volume is fine for his talk.)