Turtles, snakes and moose, oh my!

Fredonia Division II track and field All-American spent a summer in nature conducting research
Ozaukee Press staff

Division II All-American thrower Emma Richards of Fredonia has four more shots to get on the awards podium, and that’s exactly what she plans to do.

The Ozaukee High School alumna attending Grand Valley State in Michigan has already been named an All-American four times in her career between shot put and discus at NCAA indoor and outdoor championship meets, and the pandemic is giving her one more year of college competition.

Last season, Richards was fourth in shot put at the indoor championships in March with a throw of 15.24 meters.

In the outdoor championships in May, she was fourth in shot put with a throw of 15.37 meters and fifth in discus with a toss of 48.63 meters.

She won shot put in the indoor Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference meet, and won shot put and discus in the outdoor conference meet.

The U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association named Richards as the Midwest Region Women’s Field Athlete of the Year.

“It was definitely one that I’m still trying to grasp that it actually happened,” Richards said of last season.

Track and field team members are on their own to train over summer. Richards lifted weights at a nearby high school and used its outdoor track to throw.

Her day job during summer was a paid internship that involved tracking turtles at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute in Hastings, Mich., about an hour south of her college in Grand Rapids.

It was right up Richards’ alley. She is majoring in natural resource management and wildlife biology.

Richards was a research intern working with a graduate student on her thesis project. They tracked eastern box turtles, collected their eggs and brought them to the center to raise them, called “head starting,” before releasing them back into the wild.

Eastern box turtles are a species of concern, Richards said. They’re not sexually mature until they’re 10 or 15 years old, and many don’t live that long due to a few factors.

Babies are getting eaten by animals such as raccoons before they even hatch, Richards said. She would find nests and hours later see broken eggshells after coons attacked.

The turtles are also being taken for pets due to their attractive and varied appearance.

“They all have their own unique coloring and patterns,” Richards said.

The turtles have a special defense mechanism — they can pull their head and legs into their shell so nothing can get at them.

But it takes time to develop the skill. The ones raised at the nature center can pull in their limbs at 9 months old. Turtles in the wild can’t do that even at 1 year old, Richards said.

The turtles are about the size of a watch when they hatch. The center keeps them until they are around 9 months old and the size of a 2 or 3-year-old in the wild. Once they meet a 40-gram weight requirement, radio transmitters may be attached so the turtles can be tracked.

“Trackers can’t go above 8% of their body weight so as not to hinder day-to-day goings on of the turtle,” Richards said.

She helped find older turtles with transmitters to see how they were doing. Some had their transmitters chewed or broken off, but Richards said she hopes the fact that the turtles were bigger and healthy when released is a factor in  keeping them alive.

The turtles are usually found in wetlands, which made for a challenging search.

“It was fun playing the game of ‘Am I stuck, am I still going to have a boot after I lift up my foot?’” Richards said.

They also lay in poison ivy or poison sumac trees, which made for an itchy experience, and she had to walk five to six miles to find the creatures.

“It was worth it every time we found them. They are so cute. Every one is different — some were super bright, some were darker,” Richards said.

She also helped with another research project at the nature center, helping a group find eastern massasauga snakes to do research.

Only trained technicians using hooks and tongs handled the venomous snakes. They are put in pales and covered with a pillow case. Microchips were placed inside the snakes — similar to those in dogs — so they can be tracked.

“They’re more mellow as far as rattlesnakes. They’d rather hide and not be found,” Richards said.

“It is cool to hear that rattle.”

One of the leaders of the project will be one of Richards’ professors this year.

After her job was completed, Richards went on a vacation in the Porcupine Mountains and Isle Royal in the U.P. that involved about as much hiking about seven miles per day over boulders.

Richards wanted to see a moose and had one “semi-charge” at her group, but they were trained how to react.

“It’s crazy how big of an animal they are. I say they’re majestic,” she said.

“It’s cool to see the moose have dinner —70 feet away just chillin’.”

Richards spent about a week at home in Fredonia before heading back to school last week to train for the track and field season, which starts in December.

“I honestly can’t wait to get back around my teammates,” Richards said.

Shot put has always been her favorite event, but discus has moved up the list.

“I like one a little bit more when I’m throwing it better. I have fun with both of them,” she said.

Richards doesn’t have any post-grad plans yet, but she said jobs don’t start to open until November.

She took a wildland firefighting course and is certified to help with prescribed burns in Michigan on a volunteer basis. Most ecosystems need fire to maintain their health.

“I’m intrigued to be a firefighter,” Richards said.

Before donning a firefighter uniform, she is aiming to have a few more medals placed around her neck.



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