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Two St. Olaf research projects earn DNR funding

By Alexandra Wertz '12
December 7, 2010

Katie Halvorson '11 (pictured here with a female spiny softshell turtle) is working with Assistant Professor of Biology Steve Freedberg to study the smooth softshell turtle population in Minnesota.

The smooth softshell turtle is a rare and elusive species in Minnesota, yet can be found in abundance in similar ecosystems across the country. It’s a situation that begs a simple question: is the species becoming extinct in this neck of the woods or is it simply hard to find?

Assistant Professor of Biology Steve Freedberg and Katie Halvorson ‘11 hope to provide an answer through their research, which recently earned the support of a grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

In order to address ecological concerns, the Minnesota DNR offers annual grants of up to $50,000 for individuals or organizations whose research benefits the state’s pressing conservation needs. Of the six grants awarded this year, two went to faculty members at St. Olaf. In addition to Freedberg’s work on the genetics and extinction concerns of smooth softshell turtles in the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, biology faculty Patrick Ceas and Jean Porterfield received a grant to study the life histories of longear sunfish. Each project received a $50,000 award.

Both of the St. Olaf projects are highly dependent on undergraduate research assistance. Halvorson, a biology and environmental studies major, is working under Freedberg. “I have always been interested in animals, especially in reptiles,” Halvorson says. “So the chance to do research on several species of Minnesota turtles seemed almost too good to be true.”

The DNR funding enabled Halvorson to spend the summer collecting DNA samples of turtles in the Mississippi River and to continue her work this semester as an independent research project under Freedberg.

Not only did the grant provide valuable internship and research experience for Halvorson, but it funds research that can potentially improve the management of the smooth softshell turtle in the state. “This research will provide critical information on other aspects of the species’ biology — such  as population size, movement patterns, and genetic variations — that will play an integral role in current conservation practices and future monitoring efforts,” Halvorson says.

With the help of Halvorson, Freedberg aims to identify factors correlated with population status and also hopes to suggest the ecological factors, such as water quality, that may contribute to the sustainability of the species in Minnesota.

The research has the potential to play a significant role in the long-term viability of the smooth softshell population. “Low genetic variation can cause increased disease susceptibility, reduced growth and development rates, and an overall reduction in offspring fitness and survival rates, all of which can ultimately lead to the extinction of a population,” Halvorson says.

In addition to providing important information about smooth softshell turtles, Freedberg hopes this research can shed light on some of the problems with Minnesota water quality. “Minnesota loves its water, and smooth softshell abundance may be a good indicator of water and habitat quality,” Freedberg says. “Understanding what makes them come and go may help us know which habitats are in good shape and which ones are out of balance.”

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or