Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.


Forensic Files Series Leads OU Student to Museum

“It all started with a Forensic Files episode. They used diatoms to link the assailants and the crime scene, and I just thought they were so beautiful. I love how something so small can have such large applications.”

 Shelly Wu’s fascination with diatoms began her sophomore year at Loyola University New Orleans. As a biology major, Wu knew she wanted to pursue a life of science, though lacked a specific focus. One evening at home, Wu stumbled upon the NBC series that would lead her to specialize in diatoms.

Video, Diatoms in Action

Diatoms are a major group of algae that appear in nearly every major body of water. Though small in size, these microorganisms have big applications – like forensics, water quality, even filtering beer. Diatoms often attach to turtle shells and establish themselves as part of a microhabitat, which is of particular interest to scientists.

 Currently, only two papers have been published on turtle shell diatoms – both on Amazonian species. But Wu hopes to change that. Thanks to a prestigious summer internship funded by the National Science Foundation, Wu was awarded $4,000 to research diatoms on Oklahoma turtle shells beneath Sam Noble Museum herpetology curator Cameron Siler. 


Wu in the field

 “During such a difficult time to educate younger generations of researchers about the importance and incredibly broad utility of these collections, it is always exciting to see students develop novel approaches to working in natural history museums,” said Siler.

 Through her research, which began in March, Wu hopes to answer three major questions. Do different turtle species support different species of diatoms? Are diatom species on a turtle host selective for particular microhabitats on the turtle’s shell? How do diatom communities on the common snapping turtle and red-eared slider vary across different regions of the US? To answer these questions, Wu is sampling, analyzing and comparing the microhabitats of five Oklahoma turtle species. 


Wu studies Oklahoma’s common snapping turtle

 “I sample six specific areas of the shell using a brush and circular plastic tube,” Wu explained. “I place the tube over the area, circle the brush 10 times and move to the next spot. Then I use a light microscope to examine the sample.”

In order to access the needed research material, Wu works closely with Liz Bergey from the Oklahoma Biological Survey and museum herpetology collection manager Jessa Watters. As a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, Wu’s work will also help to develop her master’s thesis on the possible relationship between diatoms, algae dispersion and turtle migration.

“Down the road it would be nice to know which diatoms are on live turtles,” said Wu. “It could help us better understand the relationship between algae dispersion and turtle migration.”

On rescuing turtles

turtle-2I rescued a turtle on the way back to the museum after lunch today. It was a basic brown box turtle, bookin’ it across Imhoff near the creek. It’s amazing how fast those little guys can go when they’re motivated, and this one was highly motivated. Ahead: cool green grass, water and shelter. Underfoot: hot black asphalt cris-crossed with deadly, high-velocity mechanisms of roaring death!

I pulled over and tricker-trotted back down the side of the road in my heels and skirt, terrified the poor turtle would get crushed before I could get to it, but I got there in time, picked him up off the mean streets of Norman and carried him the rest of the way across the road. I put him down in some grass and wished him well.

There are few things about turtles I’ve learned from our curators here, for others like myself who are turtle rescuers, or who have kids who love turtles.

Turtle Tips:

When rescuing turtles, move FORWARD. It knows where it’s going, if you’re going to stop for it, pick it up and carry it on in the direction it was headed, not back the other way. If you carry it back, it will just turn around and head back into the road.

Keep them in their neighborhood. Box turtles usually stay within a familiar area. It can take a box turtle a long time, at a turtle pace, to familiarize itself with food sources in its territory. Turtles that are moved sometimes die before they can find sources of food.

Turtles are fascinating, peaceful critters for the most part. But avoid the temptation to bring your rescued turtle home. Turtles live a long long time, and your whim could lead to years and years of responsibility of feeding and housing it. Best to admire it and return it to its home territory.

A few years ago, we did a turtle feature on our newsletter’s Kids Page: here’s the link if you want to know a little more about Oklahoma turtles:http://www.snomnh.ou.edu/kids/images/newsletter_pages/Summer_05_kids_page.pdf