When Madelyn (MJ) Blanton was a child growing up in the shadows of the Ozark Mountains in Northwest Arkansas, she was always outside and always barefoot.
“My mother likes to remind me of my brothers’ soccer games,” MJ said. “While they were playing, I would hunt for tadpoles in the pond next to the fields. I was always into catching things, finding out about them, and searching through Peterson Field Guides when I’d get home.”
When MJ was 13, her parents moved to the Dallas suburb of Duncanville, Texas, for their work with Pioneer Bible Translators, but MJ never lost her love for the great outdoors. When she was in high school, she started to realize she could combine her passion with a career.
“I also decided I wanted to go to a Christian college,” MJ said. “When I put my love for the outdoors together with a desire to go to a place where I could love God, that really narrowed down my college choices. Even though I ended up touring Montreat during COVID, I still met so many amazing people on my visit. Thankfully, through the Honors Program and scholarships, I was able to make coming to Montreat a reality.”
Today, as a sophomore (with enough credits to already be classified as a senior) and an Honors Program student at Montreat College, MJ’s dreams are just starting to come true, and she’s getting to do what her parents say would make her squeal with joy when she was young.
“Initially I came to Montreat thinking I would be a park ranger, and then I got to do so much field work already my freshman year that I just fell in love with research,” she said. “It’s not what I would’ve predicted, but it’s been very fun.”
Just recently, the Environmental Science major was recognized for her outstanding work, as she received one of only eight stipend awards funded through an endowment established by North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (NCICU).
MJ’s research project is centered on describing the freshwater turtle communities in the Lake James Watershed. Lake James is a century-old lake whose westernmost shores lie about 25 miles northeast of campus in the Catawba River system. Formed by a series of dams built around the same time as Montreat began in 1916, the man-made lake contains more than 150 miles of picturesque shoreline that is a popular choice for human housing, as well as numerous creatures in the watershed, especially different species of turtles.
“There has never been a survey of the turtles in Lake James to identify how many species occur there,” MJ said. “In particular, there is a freshwater species called River Cooters. People see them in the river, and they’re known to be in the watershed and the county, but they’ve never been documented and published.”
Throughout her research, MJ is specifically hoping to find and study Apalone spinifera spinifera, a species that has only been found in two counties in North Carolina. Commonly known as the Eastern Spiny Softshell, the species has a distinctly pointed snout and is rarely seen in the Lake James area. In 2021, a team of researchers under Joshua Holbrook, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science, identified an individual Eastern Spiny Softshell during a wetland faunal survey.
“Most summers, I’ll have students working with me through various grants,” said Professor Holbrook. “In July 2021, we didn’t have a good place to put a trap in the wetland, so we put it in the main stem of the river. We were pulling up traps, and it was close to midnight, and there was suddenly something we weren’t expecting. There’s a spiny softshell, which looks like a walking pancake in there, and it’s the only one that’s ever been documented within 100 miles in any direction.”
With help from the NCICU grant, additional research can now be conducted to discover the extent of the turtle populations in the watershed.
“They are a species of special concern, and they have really low numbers,” MJ said. “They are overhunted due to some common myths. First, they are delicious, and people like to make turtle soup with them, which is unfortunate. Another myth is that they hurt stocked fish populations. Although that’s true in a narrow sense, they also do so much to help control parasites and eat macronutrients that really help the overall ecosystem.”
Another one of MJ’s goals in her research is to trap, tag upwards of 45 individual turtles with Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags, and release them for tracking. To help with the trapping, she and Professor Holbrook will be using a fyke trap measuring 20-30 feet long that they hope to use more extensively than in the past. The more turtles they can find, the more accurate the data can be for solid statistics.
“Pulling up the traps is like Christmas morning,” Holbrook explained. “The most exciting thing for me is just to see what’s there and how many there are. Turtles can turn up in surprising areas because they can get up out of the water and cross the road.”
Beyond documenting Eastern Spiny Softshell turtles and River Cooters through October 2023, MJ hopes to publish her research in a regional journal and plans to present a full report at the annual Lake James Watershed meeting. Once that’s finished, the next step is to track where the species live and how their habitats change over time to help with conservation and monitoring effects.
MJ’s grant through NCICU is the second grant she has earned for her research at Montreat College. Previously, she received a grant through the Lake James Environmental Association (LJEA), which has a strong relationship with Professor Holbrook and Montreat College. The LJEA is also helping to fund this turtle research.
Environmental science students at Montreat are required to earn four credits of field studies. A two-credit experience is offered each semester that involves an extended weekend to places throughout the southeast. This past semester, students spent five days near the coast of South Carolina, where they spent time studying plants, fish, amphibians, and even alligators. In addition, Montreat’s Environmental Science program offers a 3-week trip to the western United States to study American ecosystems, as well as a new tropical ecology experience that began in March 2020 with an excursion into the Peruvian Amazon rainforest in South America.
“I think a big part of what makes Montreat great for Environmental Science majors is the field experience,” Professor Holbrook said. “Our students have the opportunity to do independent research, which really doesn’t happen a lot at the undergraduate level, but because we are small enough, we can make that happen.”
MJ credits Professor Holbrook, as well as Dr. Lisa Toland, Honors Program director and History department chair, for not only challenging her academically, but also for helping her connect her faith with her calling to a career in science.
“Ultimately, one of the best things and comforts in science for someone of faith is that it’s okay that there’s still so much we don’t know because we do know who created it,” MJ said.
“I think God has a very high view of interacting with the natural world,” Professor Holbrook added. “You can argue that Adam was the first taxonomist because he named the animals. Someone like Solomon was wise because he could speak about plants and animals (1 Kings 4:33). Ecological research gets to something that’s really important to God.”
While studying ecology this fall with Prof. Holbrook, the class was assigned to read A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century. Each Friday, the class would debate and have discussions about applying the different chapters in the book to their world today.
“It was a fun, fascinating, and probably the weirdest book I’ve ever read,” MJ said. “The authors are fully atheistic, PhDs in evolutionary biology, but they end up coming to some moral conclusions that are similar to Christianity. I love being at Montreat because we don’t always agree as peers on everything, but Montreat provides a safe academic context to sharpen each other’s minds in a really cool way.”
Since arriving at Montreat, MJ has immersed herself in her studies and the Montreat community, serving as an RA. Despite knowing she wanted to go to a Christian college, she was still surprised by how much she has grown in her faith in her first two years at Montreat.
“I’m continually surprised by how good and passionate the people are,” she said. “Every professor and faculty member is so passionate about students—more than I could’ve ever guessed, and that’s been my biggest joy at Montreat. I’ve also made the best friends of my life and grown so much in my faith. God will blow away your expectations every time!”