Madelyn (MJ) Blanton, a sophomore at Montreat College, recently received one of only eight stipend awards funded through an endowment established by North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (NCICU).

An environmental science major from Duncanville, Texas, MJ is researching the freshwater turtle populations 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 of western North Carolina. 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 home to numerous creatures in the watershed, especially a number of species of turtles.

Throughout her research, MJ is specifically hoping to find and study Apalone 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 2001, a team of researchers under Joshua Holbrook, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science, identified an individual Eastern Spiny Softshell during a faunal wetland survey. Now, additional research is being conducted to discover the extent of the population 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 of all, 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. The more she can find, the more accurate her data can be for solid statistics.

“Pulling up the traps is like Christmas morning,” Professor Holbrook explained. “The most exciting thing for me is just to see what’s there and how many there are. Turtles can do surprising things 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, she 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 range expansion to track where species live and how their habitats change over time to help with conservation and monitoring effects.

“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.”