In response to the story in The Daily Pennsylvanian about the plan to euthanize the turtles in the pond on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania:
The pond appears to have a smell associated with it, which has obviously drawn concerns from people on campus. And the smell has been blamed on a population of turtles (red-eared sliders — Trachemys scripta elegans), which have been released into this pond. In truth, the smell is almost certainly associated with water quality and poor filtration, and the removal of these animals seems unlikely to solve that issue. But it is the University’s decision to go through with this plan if they want to. However, to attempt to mask this plan in a series of quasi-scientific statements in an effort to make it more palatable, is not something the community should tolerate.
Some comments on specific statements from the article:
1. The fact that turtles can survive in polluted water is true. But this fact does not mean that turtles are vectors for disease. The two statements have nothing to do with each other, and there is certainly little truth to the idea that the turtles in question came to Penn from some terribly, dangerously, polluted body of water. Indeed, these animals were simply pets that were released into the pond when their owners could no longer care for them. And, while having too many turtles in the small BioPond certainly contributes to the smell, this is a simply a filtration and water flow issue. The addition of a good biological filter might solve this problem and offer an educational opportunity as well.
2. The connection between turtles and salmonella has a long and truly unscientific history. This was a scare tactic aimed at telling parents not to let their young children put small, pet turtles in their mouths. And, indeed, the “four-inch law” — banning the ownership of small turtles as pets effectively ended any concerns about this issue anyway. Salmonella is a water-borne concern. Turtles kept in clean water do not have salmonella.
3. The ecological statement that invasive turtles are destroying the ecology of native turtles may be true, but there are few, if any, reasonable studies on this. In truth, any invasive species may damage the balance of a natural ecosystem, but euthanasia is not necessarily a solution any more than is killing a few invasive plants. The concept of invasive species is a very real issue, but killing a few organisms simply doesn’t solve the problem.
More importantly, although few scientists and policy-makers seem to see this, we might simply need to understand the ‘new ecology’ — which will include invasive species. Humans are transporting animals and plants into places they have never been before and it’s a fact of life in this world. Ecologists might need to accept this and start examining the new relationships that are forming.
And even if euthanasia was an effective means of controlling invasive populations, the killing of 75 innocent turtles in a small pond in the middle of the city of Philadelphia cannot be described as a solution to an ecological problem. This is an artificial ecosystem, and these turtles are, therefore, not invasive at all. They are captive animals living in a captive environment.
To take this situation and act like it’s a response to a great ecological problem is simply bad science. Just call it what it is — the pond smells bad and the University of Pennsylvania is responding to the smell by killing a group of animals. This isn’t science. And, what’s more, if the smell persists after the turtles are gone, then this might not even be a solution to the initial problem.
Scott McRobert, Ph.D
Professor of Biology
Saint Joseph’s University
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