ENMU Student Awarded Research Grant to Study Rio Grande Cooter Nesting
By Marcus Gay, NM WRRI Senior Student Program Coordinator
The Pecos River originates in the mountains of northern New Mexico and runs 926 miles through the Chihuahuan Desert before flowing into the Rio Grande on Texas’ southern border. The Pecos River represents a major water resource and habitat for wildlife throughout Texas and New Mexico. This wildlife includes numerous species in diverse aquatic, riparian, and upland habitats. Anthropogenic alterations to the Pecos River, like dam construction and channelization, have contributed to altered flow regimes and increased salinity. As conditions across the watershed have changed, the biological diversity of the Pecos River has decreased.
One species of particular concern is a freshwater turtle called the Rio Grande cooter. Habitat degradation due to river flow alterations (e.g., dam construction, oil and gas extraction, etc.) can be a major threat to this species’ survival. The Rio Grande cooter’s status is currently being reviewed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for potential federal listing under the Endangered Species Act. Still, there is a need for more research about this turtle species in the United States and New Mexico. The Black River, a tributary of the Pecos River in Eddy County, New Mexico, is one of the only systems where the Rio Grande cooter is found in relatively high numbers; however, there have been no reports on nesting behavior to date and no reports of Rio Grande cooter nests being found on the Black River. This illustrates a gap in knowledge about nest site selection and hatching success for this species.
To fill this knowledge gap, NM WRRI awarded Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU) masters student, Frank Rodriguez, a Student Water Research Grant to study the nesting ecology of this elusive species. Under the guidance of his Faculty Advisor, Dr. Ivana Mali, Rodriguez will be working on a project entitled, Nesting ecology of the Rio Grande cooter (Pseudemys gorzugi) on the Black River, New Mexico. The objectives of this project are to conduct pedestrian surveys in search of Rio Grande cooter nesting females, set fresh nests on the Black River, and monitor the nests via game cameras to assess successful hatching rates and possible predation levels. In addition to pedestrian surveys, hoop-net trap surveys, and installing cameras, GPS transmitters will be attached to gravid females to gain more information about nesting behavior.
According to Rodriguez, freshwater turtles represent important bio-indicators of their respective ecosystems and evidence of reproduction in the Rio Grande cooter populations could be an indicator of riverine system health. Therefore, understanding the nesting ecology of the Rio Grande cooter is beneficial to managing the species and New Mexico’s water resources. According to Rodriguez, this project is significant because it will assess the relationship between Rio Grande cooter nesting success and habitat characteristics like river width, depth, water conductivity, and riparian land-use practices. If the water conditions and riparian vegetation are affecting Rio Grande cooter reproduction and nesting site selection, this study can inform water management practices on the Black River to ensure the survival of this species in one of its last strongholds.
Originally from Miami, Rodriguez received his undergraduate degree from Southern Oregon University, where he majored in Biology with an emphasis in Evolutionary Biology. He is planning to graduate from ENMU in May 2023 with a Master of Science in Biology degree. After graduation, Rodriguez plans to enroll in a doctoral program in wildlife biology or another relevant branch of biology and hopes to be directly involved in the conservation and management of endangered and threatened wildlife. Rodriguez plans to present his research at the 66th Annual New Mexico Water Conference.