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Scientists exam impact of Kalamazoo River oil spill a decade later

"Sunbath!" by Charles P. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

Scientists are checking up on the turtles that live in the Kalamazoo River. The researchers want to know how the turtles are doing ten years after an oil spill coated the river for miles. Some turtles that got oiled appear to be thriving. Turtles that were young during the spill might not have done so well.

Josh Otten is sitting in a kayak in the Kalamazoo River west of Battle Creek. He’s pulled up to the bank, holding a palm-sized, wriggling black-and-yellow-striped turtle. Otten turns it over, showing the dark lines and brown spots on its under-shell. Otten says this is a northern map turtle. The most abundant species in the river.

The reason why they get their common name is they have all those little lines on their shells, so it kind of looks like a topographic map.

Otten’s a biologist who specializes in turtles. He’s almost done getting data for a three-year study on the turtles of the Kalamazoo River. Otten’s heading out for a day of fieldwork. Which means he’ll spend a lot of time sidling up to basking turtles, hoping they jump into his net and not the other way.

First I take a few pictures...

Otten caught this map turtle as soon as he hit the water. He weighs it, measures it, then files a notch in its shell. Annoying but not painful for the turtle, he says.

(continuation of filing) that way I can know if I recapture this one.

The study returned Otten to a river he got to know well in 2010. That’s when Enbridge Energy’s Line 6B pipeline broke near Marshall, sending upward of a million gallons of crude oil into the river. Otten ended up on the scene days later because he worked for a company that Enbridge hired for cleanup. Now Otten’s working on his PhD at the University of Toledo. The school that’s heading up the turtle study.

He’s probably done the biggest map turtle population study that’s ever been done.

Lisa Williams is an East Lansing-based contaminant specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She also supervised oil cleanup in 2010. Williams says turtles had it bad during the spill. Especially northern map turtles. They’re always coming up to breathe and to bask.

We believe nearly every turtle within miles of the river got oiled.

A multimillion-dollar settlement with Enbridge focused on restoration, not research. But Williams says the settlement made an exception of sorts for turtles because they suffered so much in the spill. It funded the turtle study because it’s intended to help protect turtle nests. Some of the research has focused on nesting habits. Williams says it’s shown that river turtles will travel to find a good spot for their eggs.

They’re not like sea turtles, they’re not huge! You can hold one in the palm of your hand and yet they go miles to nest, it’s amazing.

But in tracking turtles’ numbers, their size and weight, the study will also probe for effects of the oil spill.


Some turtles got microchips during the cleanup. That means Josh Otten can scan for them as he paddles the river. It’s just him in the kayak. He recorded this sound on his phone.

I started picking up a beep from one of the turtles I was tracking...

He spots it before it heads for some woody debris.

So I’ll go ahead and collect a data point for this particular turtle.

Otten says he’s recaptured many microchipped turtles. It’s a good sign. It means plenty of turtles that survived the oil spill are still going. But after the spill, cleaners noticed they weren’t finding many young turtles. Now, Otten says he doesn’t catch as many 8 to 12 year olds as he’d expect. Something caused the population to dip around the time of the spill.

It could have been the spill,

Again, Lisa Williams with the Fish and Wildlife Service. 

It could have been the response to the spill, the fact that river was suddenly full of boats and equipment and sediments are being disturbed, the banks are being cleaned up...

The oil might have trapped some small turtles as it weathered and thickened in the river. And Williams says cleaners might have removed some turtles as they took oil out of the river.

If there were turtles that were kind of stuck in that oil and they were small, they would have been vacuumed up with the oil.

The river also flooded in July 2010. That could have affected young turtles. Williams says at this stage, it’s hard to pinpoint the cause.

But it’s a disturbing indicator that the spill could have had a pret ty significant impact on the young turtles in those years.

Josh: how’s it going?

I catch up with Josh Otten when he lands in Galesburg. He’s tired after hours of tracking turtles in the sun.

But I caught 20! Which is a good day for down this stretch.

This fall Otten plans to wrap up the turtle catching. Then he’ll dig into the mound of data he’s collected in the last few years. He hopes that results in a truly detailed picture of how turtles in the river are doing.