Written by and photos courtesy of Jenn Senft
Six weeks away from home is a daunting prospect for most, and as someone with anxiety I am no exception. Despite being an experienced traveller, I was still nervous for the challenge that awaited me. Since the pandemic, I have lost confidence and felt lacking in field experience, so when I heard about Operation Wallacea I knew I had to sign up.
I had decided to take a year out from studying at university after 2nd year and was therefore in a prime position to collect my own data for my undergraduate dissertation in Biology – an exciting prospect! OpWall offer some fantastic dissertation topics, but one really jumped out at me: habitat preferences of the Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni) in Krka National Park, Croatia. I chose this project because I’ve had an interest in reptiles from a young age and this would expand my knowledge. I also feel this subject has wide-reaching importance, as habitat preference provides information on niches and ecosystem function, potentially aiding in future rewilding projects.
Within the broader topic, I decided to study whether microhabitat preferences vary in T. hermanni based on size, sex, and age, as well as studying whether specific behaviours are exhibited in certain microhabitats. That’s a fancy way to ask: “how does the Hermann’s tortoise use its environment?”. Through this project I gained hands-on experience with visual encounter surveys along transects, collecting environmental data, as well as taking morphometrics of the tortoises found.
I also had the opportunity to lead a trial for a cheaper tracking method to replace expensive GPS devices. The experimental alternative? Pink, fluorescent, nappies. I can explain! The fluorescent powder was attached to the tortoise in a permeable bag with masking tape (see pictures for the nappy look), which left a trail as the tortoise moved through the vegetation. We then tracked these trails after dark using UV torches. It was super cool to see the trails and experience life as a tortoise. Even if that did involve hours of struggling through spikey juniper bushes…
As the only dissertation student on site this year, I was like an honorary staff member by the end of my expedition. The actual on-site staff made me feel so welcome and included me in all their antics. They all chipped in with my project in one way or another and I am so grateful to have had such a fabulous support system. I couldn’t have done it without them and cannot thank them enough! Through my expedition, I’ve gained valuable experience of real-world science and learned so much about wildlife, life as an ecologist, and what it takes to be successful in the field. My expectations have been greatly exceeded.
To conclude, would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Would I recommend it to others? Without question.