Photography Technique

Radiation can be good for turtles

Several years ago, Judy Greene of the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory took a turtle to a nearby medical facility and asked the staff to X-ray it.

The turtle was not sick; it did not have a cracked shell or broken bones. But that image had far-reaching, invaluable consequences for ecological research: the X-ray clearly showed that the turtle was carrying eggs.

X-ray photography had been used as a tool in human medicine for decades. Because of that turtle’s photograph, X-rays are now used worldwide to reveal highly interesting phenomena about animals other than humans in fields other than medicine. The animals are primarily reptiles; the fields are ecology and biology.

Herpetologists who study the ecology of snakes, alligators, lizards and turtles sometimes need information on the animals’ internal characteristics. For examining the “hard parts” of an organism (e.g., bones, eggs, solid stomach contents), X-ray photography can be a useful technique.

X-ray photography reveals that a female eastern mud turtle is carrying eggs. [Photo courtesy Judy Greene]

X-ray photons are absorbed by hard, dense material like bone, and structures appear as bright areas on the radiograph (film). Radiographs enable ecologists to gather pertinent data, then return the animal unharmed to its original capture location.

A valuable feature of the X-ray technique is that the number of eggs in egg-laying reptiles can be determined from one year to the next because none need be killed for dissection. Scientists can examine and release live specimens in field studies without harming them or affecting the integrity of the population being studied.

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