Friday, January 27, 2012

Interview with Terry VanDeWalle

You’ve had pet snakes for many years. Have you also had pet frogs or toads and turtles?
I have not had any frogs or toads as pets, but we have had a few turtles in the house at times. My daughter is really interested in turtles, and I have picked up several hatchling turtles that we have headstarted, including painted turtles, snapping turtles, and a Blanding’s turtle, a threatened species in Iowa. Headstarting is raising hatchlings in captivity for a while, letting them grow, and then releasing them back where they came from. Headstarting can really increase the survival of young turtles, which are highly prone to predation by raccoons, opossums, skunks, and other predators. Keep in mind that a permit may be required to keep wild turtles in captivity, particularly certain species.

What’s your best turtle story?
I have a lot of turtle stories, but one I like is about a snapping turtle. I was trapping turtles in Lee County, Iowa, as part of a survey of a County Conservation Board property, and I caught a 10-12-pound snapper. I wanted to photograph the turtle, so I left it in the trap and carried the trap and turtle up to my truck in the parking area. It was mid-morning, and I wanted to spend some time looking for lizards while the temperature was right, so I took the turtle out of the trap and placed it in a bucket while I searched for lizards. I left the trap set up so that it would dry in the sun. After about half an hour, I came back and was going to photograph the snapper and then let it go. I went to the bucket and the turtle was gone. I looked around a bit but did not see it, so I figured it had gotten out of the bucket and headed back to the water. I turned around to get the trap so that I could reset it and, you guessed it, the snapper was in the trap. Apparently, it had gotten out of the bucket, walked 10 feet, and crawled right back into the trap. If I had known it was going to be that easy, I would not have carried all those traps down to the water.   

Your graduate research was on turtles; what particular species did you study? My research looked at the effect of river modification (channelization, dams, bank stabilization, etc.) on the diversity of aquatic turtles. We evaluated the effects on all of Iowa’s aquatic turtles. As expected, we found that the more highly modified the river, the lower the number of species of turtles in the river.

What are your current research interests?
For the past 11 years, I have been doing a long-term mark/recapture and radio-telemetry study with massasauga rattlesnakes in Iowa.

What other plants and animals are you especially interested in?
Although reptiles and amphibians are my favorite, I really consider myself a naturalist and have an interest in many types of plants and animals; I really enjoying walking or driving through areas identifying species as I go. Over the past few years I have been working quite a bit with bats as part of my job as an environmental consultant.

Malformed frogs have been much in the news in recent years. Are turtles similarly threatened?
The current thinking is that many of the deformities that we saw in frogs were caused by parasites. Turtles, as far as we know, do not experience the same thing. The primary threat to turtles is loss of habitat, predation of nests and hatchlings, and roads.

Tell us about your next laminated guide. What other publications are you working on?
The next laminated guide will be Salamanders in Your Pocket. It will cover the same 12 states as the other guides. Although we only have 5 species of salamanders and newts in Iowa, there are many more species as you go south and east.

I am also currently working with Jim Christiansen, Neil Bernstein, and Jeff Parmelee on a book covering the natural history of Iowa’s reptiles.

What are the best places in the Midwest to see reptiles and amphibians?
This will likely seem like the obvious answer, but the best places to look for reptiles and amphibians are where there is suitable habitat, such as wetlands, streams, lakes, ponds, grassland, woodland, etc. Unfortunately, throughout the Midwest, much of our natural habitat has been lost, and the places it remains are often public areas, like county or state parks or wildlife refuges. So these areas probably provide the best opportunities to observe reptiles and amphibians along with many other species of wildlife as well. Many states have watchable wildlife guides that describe the best areas. The places that are good for reptiles and amphibians are also good for a whole host of other species, so remember to look up and around once in a while to see the birds flying over or the muskrat swimming by.

Terry VanDeWalle, Frogs and Toads in Your Pocket and Turtles in Your Pocket, with photographs by Suzanne L. Collins


  1. Wow, wonderful blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you make blogging look easy. The overall look of your site is wonderful, let alone the content!.

  2. Thanks so much! We've been blogging here for 3+ years. We're really lucky to have such a wonderful pool of authors and interesting topics to choose from and share!