Turtle Camp: A Super Herper’s Paradise for 30 Years

By: Nicole Onken, CALS Communications Service

When you drive over Gateway Bridge from Iowa to Illinois you’ll reach the Thomson Causeway Recreation Area, an island campground in the middle of the Mississippi River surrounded by marshland. 

Newcomers to the island, located right across the river from Clinton, might be surprised by the slow 10 mph speed limit and the unique sign on the roadway leading to the campground—“Watch for Turtles.”

Visitors are often just looking for a place to relax and grill out, but for Fred Janzen and his team of eager students, turtles are the main attraction.

For the past 30 years, Janzen has spent the summer at the Thomson Causeway, researching a variety of reptiles and amphibians in a summer-long fieldwork setup now known as Turtle Camp.

Fred Janzen, founder of Turtle Camp. Photo by Nicole Onken.

Hatching an Idea
On June 1, 1988, Janzen drove to Thomson, Illinois from the University of Chicago. The then first-year PhD student was looking for a sand prairie, a specific type of ecological environment, for his research project on turtle eggs. He was simply seeking a place to camp for the night when he stumbled upon something else: a biological goldmine of reptiles.

The Thomson Causeway campground is a hub of wildlife diversity, sufficiently unaffected by human intervention. When Janzen and a friend saw the island for the first time, he knew it was something special.

“We drove down the first turn and we saw half a dozen painted turtles nesting right in front of us. We’re like this is heaven; this is unbelievable! The place we were going to camp had turtles nesting right in it,” said Janzen, now a professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology at Iowa State.

Up until then, his research on turtle eggs had been based off hatching them in artificial, controlled conditions within a lab. With the discovery of this new site, he was able to track what happened to the eggs in real-world conditions too. By returning year after year, he could track long-term changes in the turtle population, providing him with invaluable data.

That fateful trip would set in motion in-depth scientific research spanning three decades.

Herpetology Research
While the name “Turtle Camp” may seem simple, the research conducted here is not.

The primary research focus of Turtle Camp is the temperature controlled sex determination in painted turtles. This means the temperature of the outside environment decides whether the turtle will be a male or a female while it is still developing in the egg. Therefore, turtles are an excellent indicator of climate change, on both the macro and micro level.

“The structure of their population is directly related to the environment. As the environment changes, it directly affects these animals,” said Janzen.

Besides painted turtles, Janzen and his team also study map turtles, box turtles, Blanding’s turtles, snapping turtles, blue racer snakes and hognose snakes. All these reptiles can be found on the Thomson Causeway.  

There have been 19 master’s theses and doctoral dissertations completed and 106 published scientific papers, created mainly or solely with data from Turtle Camp. Thousands of other scientific works also have cited Turtle Camp data and research as a source.

Turning Students into Scientists
For the first seven years of his research, Janzen would bring the occasional undergraduate student along to assist him. However, the modern-day Turtle Camp experience began in 1995, a year after Janzen joined the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty.  That year, he took out his first group of students from both Iowa State and Carleton College.

“There was a lot more I could do with a student team, rather than just me. They could do things I didn’t have the time to do on my own, such as mark both turtles and their nests. We’ve gained such rich knowledge by their work,” said Janzen.

Former Turtle Campers Arun Sethuraman (left) and Justin R. St. Juliana (right) returned for the 30th reunion. Photo by Nicole Onken. 

In 2007, Janzen and his team of graduate students formed a new plan: get high school students interested in science by bringing them to Turtle Camp. The new program, called Turtle Camp Research and Education in Ecology, shortened to TREE, gave students an opportunity to participant in scientific research and gain confidence in their skills. Many of these budding “herpers”—as herpetologists nickname themselves—come from underserved areas and have never had the opportunity to participate in scientific fieldwork.

“Turtle Camp gives high school students an opportunity to excel and see that they can do science too. It gives them a little jolt of confidence. To me, that’s been pretty exciting,” said Janzen.

Now, his team consists of students from high school age to postdoctoral scholars. Janzen credits the student volunteers and interns for laying the groundwork for years of long-term science.

Turtle Camp Alums Return
Every 10 years or so, Janzen invites his former Turtle Campers back for a reunion. This June marked the 30th anniversary of the fieldwork site, and Turtle Camp alumni came from all across the country to celebrate. The former campers spent the weekend catching up on the latest Turtle Camp research, grilling, chatting and, of course, catching turtles. 

Many of the participants reminisced about their time at Turtle Camp and the impact it had on them, including Justin R. St. Juliana, who earned a bachelor’s in animal ecology in 2002 from Iowa State. The Turtle Camp alum and lecturer in Cornell University’s ecology and evolutionary biology program said, “Turtle Camp is really where I got my start on scientific research.”

For Arun Sethuraman, who earned a doctorate in bioinformatics and computational biology from Iowa State in 2013 and is now an assistant professor of biology at California State University San Marcos, Turtle Camp was his first-ever camping experience. “Finishing up watching the turtles nest and then making s'mores around a campfire was one of my favorite memories of Turtle Camp,” said Sethuraman. “It’s nice to be back to get away for a couple weeks and camp out again.”

Former camper Curtis Eckerman, a previous Iowa State student and now an associate professor of biology at Austin Community College, explained what Turtle Camp is all about. He said, “You remember the people you’re out here with—it’s a bonding experience.”

According to the alumni, that’s what makes Turtle Camp so unique. They value the scientific research they completed, but they value the personal connections even more. Many still consider their former Turtle Campers life-long friends and professional contacts.

“There’s a reason these former Turtle Camp participants made the effort to come back from all over the county—Turtle Camp is a transformative experience,” said Janzen.

Janzen is a professor in the department of ecology, evolution and organismal biology. EEOB is a major participant, along with other departments, in several interdepartmental majors and programs, including bioinformatics and computational biology, ecology and evolutionary biology, environmental science, genetics and genomics, interdisciplinary graduate studies, microbiology, plant biology and sustainable agriculture. It offers graduate work leading to both master’s and doctorate degrees.

Current and former Turtle Camp participants attend the 30th reunion at the Thomson Causeway Recreation Area. Many have attended Iowa State. Photo by Nicole Onken.