Turtle Nerds: The Next Generation
Future Personalities of Chelonian Conservation
Take a moment and think back with me. Imagine if you will the time you were a senior in Highschool – that uncertain yet terrifyingly exciting period between childhood and adult life. Where you do not feel like a grown up yet, but society says otherwise. When you were almost ready to head out into the big world on your own.
What were your interests then? How did you spend your time? Did you have any idea of who you wanted to be for the rest of your life? For myself, that last question was a hard “NO!” After all, who knows at that age what they want to do with all the possibilities laid before them? What did you want to take from life, and more importantly, what did you want to give back?
Returning to the present, allow me to introduce you to three young men I had the pleasure of meeting in early 2021 who, in my humble opinion, represent the future of conservation for chelonians, both domestic and foreign. This “Next Gen” of turtle heroes consists of three gentlemen who, living miles, even states apart, came together as like-minded turtle enthusiasts, and eventually the best of friends. Their names are Michael Skibsted, Jack Thompson, and Wyatt Keil.
At ages 17 and 18, these teenage turtle nerds have dived headfirst into the world of chelonians. They have traveled the country participating in research, networking, field work, and garnered a plethora of knowledge that together they may rival some of today’s well known chelonian experts! Let us now learn a little more about these impressive youths, the next generation of turtle nerds.
Meeting by webcam, Jack, Wyatt, Michael and myself spoke briefly of their planned turtle expeditions across the United States in summer 2021. The interview had not even begun, yet I was quite impressed by their passion and commitment.
How did you all meet originally?
Jack– “I met Michael in 2017 through social media. After a visit to Peter Pritchard at the Chelonian Research Institute, we became closer friends. Then in June of 2018, I met Wyatt through social media. He actually lived in my town. I recognized immediately he had a passion for animals. I invited Wyatt to a favorite turtle spotting pond of mine and it was there I realized the depth of Wyatt’s commitment and fascination with reptiles. We continued to go herping together from then on.”
Wyatt– “I’m pretty new to herping. Before this I came from Delmar, Maryland, which is the middle of nowhere, so I had no idea there was an actual community of people herping my age. Before I would only go out and take pictures of turtles and snakes that I caught and that was it. But then Jack took me under his wing and has been a real mentor for me. He has taught me so much more than I knew before, not only about our native turtle species I am familiar with, but those all around the world. Because of him I have been introduced to so many amazing people, including Michael.”
You three were able to connect and meet because of social media. I believe you also started a private Facebook group? Can you tell me about it?
Michael– “Well it all started as Jack and me being Facebook friends after being on a Facebook turtle page. Eventually Jack started sending me simple messages asking questions about Megacephaly and Musk Turtles. Basic care questions that I eventually recognized him as a person who shares my passion and commitment to turtles. As the conversations grew it was better to get others involved so we created a private chat group and added other turtle people our age to it. From there it just sort of grew.”
“You know, Turtle People just have this type of bond that right when they meet they hit it off!”- Jack Thompson
So you brought together all these turtle nerds your age from around the country just using social media?
Wyatt– “Yup. We used Instagram and Facebook groups and chats.”
Jack– “There are actually a couple chat groups. We have a main group that is all reptile people. When you open that chat though, it is as if there is a war going on. The snake people seem to be at each other’s throats, the turtle people sort of step back. But it has gotten better this past winter. We all collaborated to solve any problems. Then I created a separate chat that is all just turtle people. Everyone there is our age, so we aren’t the only young people that are in on turtles and conservation.”
Michael– “So Jack and I started these groups and from there we just brought in a bunch of people that we know. There is the main “Herp Chat” group, which has about 30 people who are all our age. We do not have any adults in the groups. There is quite a lot of good discussion, and we have a wide diversity of people. We have people ranging from those studying the physiology of Greco lizards who attend Stanford, to people that just love going out herping. It is a great collection of like-minded people. Then Jack started the “Chelonian Chat” which has only turtle people.”
Connecting with large numbers of people today has been made much easier with social media and platforms like Google meet. It’s quite impressive that basically you created your own turtle network of all young people simply using Facebook and Instagram, correct?
Jack– “Absolutely. I think the oldest person in our network isn’t even twenty”.
Wyatt– “It started out with just a few of us, and then we would meet other people in groups or public posts. We would talk them up and become friends.”
Michael– “There is more of us out there than you would think, young herpers that is.”
By this time in the interview, it was clear they were passionate, knowledgeable, and had already accomplished successful networking. They are building success before even receiving their diplomas! Utilizing social media to create an entire nexus of reptile and turtle lovers from their generation shows true leadership skills. But that was just the start of a friendship that would take them on several “turtley” awesome adventures.
Working with colleagues from a distance has almost become the new normal after the COVID-19 pandemic. We have touched on your work together started out through social media and the technologies available to you. When did you three finally get together to meet in person?
Jack– “It was right before the pandemic happened, at the end of 2019. Wyatt and I herp together all the time, but Michael lives across the country in California, so it’s not easy to meet up.”
Michael– “Towards the end of 2019 my family and I were going to Washing D.C. to see the Smithsonian and other Museums. I knew Jack and Wyatt lived close enough to DC so I decided to see if they would want to meet up, and we did that at the Natural History Museum. You know, turtle people just have this type of bond that right when they meet they hit it off! We spent the whole day together, going to the national zoo and getting dinner after. It was Dec 30, 2019…
And you know turtle people really are the best. I have worked with snake people and lizard people at the museum here in California, and I have to say the turtle people were the coolest and most down to earth people. It was great getting together with Wyatt and Jack”
“But on the whole Jack, Wyatt and myself are naturalists. We enjoy every part of nature and want to conserve it.”- Michael Skibstead
What is the key to a healthy long distance friendship?
Michael– “Communication is a must. I mean we have so many ways to communicate with one another, be it Facebook, Instagram, texting, calling, FaceTime, email. No one ever has to be alone in the world we live in now. But yes, communication is the key.”
Wyatt– “Definitely communication. One thing the pandemic did to me was I spent a lot of time on my phone. I was able to connect and talk with with all my friends from across the country, not just herpetology persons. So we keep in good contact with just our phones. I’m constantly texting or messaging someone from somewhere, so yes, communication.”
Jack– “Really I have to say that at the end of the day, it has to be real. If it is a real friendship, it will find a way to work out no matter the distance.”
You three seem to display a healthy variance in personalities, but have a true appreciation for reptiles that connects you. What are your individual interests or concentrations?
Wyatt– “Well my special interest is obviously turtles. But I really love medium sized predatory cats such as servals and bobcats.”
Jack– “Well again, turtles. This may come off a bit odd, but I also really enjoy large lizards. But reptile bones and osteology are also a big interest of mine.”
Michael– “The answer is clearly turtles. Species wise I have done research on Southern Pacific Pond Turtles. Getting away from that, my other main focus is philosophy. But on the whole Jack, Wyatt and myself are naturalists. We enjoy every part of nature and want to conserve it. It is great because you get out and observe things in the wild, then go home to research it, learn as much as you can, then add it to your toolbox of knowledge. That is the naturalist mentality”.
Why conservation of Chelonians?
Michael– “That’s a very tough question that I’m not really sure how to answer yet because I am still discovering myself along with the world. I picked this lane because you learn a little more about yourself. But I think it’s that I want humanity to have a better future, and with that, turtles are an essential part of the ecosystem. I see their impact with seed spreading, moving the environment, biomass, you could even say some are prey and cycle nutrients in the ecosystem. They are simply essential to life. I am a little selfish with humanity. I want us to continue to survive and live in harmony with nature, so we need to protect turtles and other animals to ensure our existence.”
Wyatt– “I definitely agree with everything Michael said. With me it is not just turtles, it’s all reptiles. They really do need our help. Turtles and snakes in general are demonized and seen as slimy, scaley, and scary. But they are an integral part of our ecosystem that I want to educate the public that they are amazing creatures, and we need them to continue to survive”
Jack– “For me it’s all wildlife in general. I absolutely love turtles, but we have to think bigger. If you look at humans, we are the cause of their demise. We have taken everything and rarely give anything back. We continue to eat our planet like a virus. I think what we should do as a species is not put ourselves on a pedestal. We need to treat the animals better, we have to clean the planet. We must become more a part of our ecosystem. Most people are not bad, they just don’t know and need to be taught right how to care for the earth.”
I hear that you guys got the chance to visit the Chelonian Research Institute. How was that experience?
Michael– “It was great. We got to go with the Turtle Conservancy to pack up the Chelonian Research Institute artifacts. In terms of impact, it was a very cathartic experience handling these specimens that belonged to Dr. Peter Pritchard.”
Wyatt– “It was such a memorable thing, packing up all these amazing specimens. We were there for four days so we also had time to go herping together which was great!”
The message you three are projecting is impressive and empowering! Tell us what all have you done so far conservation wise for chelonians?
Jack– “Well I have memberships with theTurtleRoom, the Turtle Survival Alliance, and The Turtle Conservancy. I had the chance long before he passed away to meet Dr Peter Pritchard to learn what he had to teach me. I did start participating in local terrapin surveys and submitting data for them. Also I’ve contacted my State Herpetologist with submissions of what we should be doing and actions we should be taking to conserve the turtles we have here in Delaware. I have a business where I do educational shows at nature centers. I bring my animals to show them. When people come, you know that about 80% of them know nothing about what I’m about to present, yet when they leave they are interested and want to learn more. Then after my presentations, I will get messages weeks later from these people showing me turtles they have saved off the road or found in a pond. They get interested and want to help conserve. Lastly, you can count the hundreds of turtles I’ve saved off the roads and from dangerous areas.”
Wyatt– “I’ve attended the same terrapin surveys Jack has, but there isn’t much to do conservation-wise here in Delaware. However, I do make it a point to reach out to the public and educate them on turtles however I can, be it at a pond or over my social media accounts. But mostly I live in a State Park next to a Marsh, so all the time in the summer I have terrapins coming into my yard to dig nests and lay eggs. I’ll protect the nest and then once the eggs hatch, I’ll collect the hatchlings, keep them overnight to make sure they are OK, and then release them the next day into the marsh, so that no predators can get to them walking towards the marsh. I plan to be traveling a lot this summer to see as many turtle people as I can but also go herping as much as possible. It’s my absolute passion in life. We have to conserve the planet, or else…”
Michael– “One of the things the three of us do constantly is read, research, and continue our journey towards knowledge of these animals so that we can one day better serve them. Balancing that with a high school schedule and personal life is quite extreme. All the opportunities that we will get and that we have had hinge upon the knowledge we gain and the work we put into it.
But to elaborate, I have been participating in my own research on the pacific pond turtle. It’s basically the only freshwater turtle here in Orange County, California. It’s split into two subspecies, the Northern Pacific Pond Turtle and the Southern Pacific Pond Turtle.
The thing about California is it’s over urbanized. It’s basically concrete. There is not much area for wildlife or plant life. I became interested in them in middle school, then one day we found a wilderness park just filled with these pond turtles basking. So in 2015 I decided this would be an interesting thing to study. I went out for a few days watching them, documenting the turtles. Then in 2016 I brought my research to a Symposium at an Aquarium where I met the curator of herpetology from LA Natural History Museum. We ended up hitting it off and he liked what I was doing! Since then I’ve been monitoring the population, going on four years now. This year I actually got the study done, which hopefully it will be published.
I’ve worked with the Desert Tortoise Committee out here for a while. I’ve done some work with the Turtle Conservancy up in Ojai. My grandparents live in Arizona so I’ve been fortunate enough to go there and help study the desert tortoises. In Texas I’ve worked with the North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, and this summer we are hoping to go to Florida with them. The coolest thing though was I got to go to Madagascar with the Turtle Survival Alliance in 2018 after a large confiscation to help with Tortoise triage. That was an experience I am truly grateful for.”
Where do you see yourselves in 10 years?
Wyatt– “I really would like to grow my partnership with Jack, because really we are like the dynamic duo when it comes to conservation. We do everything together as a team. We are going to strive for facilities like Garden State Tortoise but larger. Just strive for conservation through our friendship.”
Jack– “Hopefully I’ll be on my way to a PhD, but I want to work everywhere. I mean I want to work all across the world, I want to travel. I want to go to the Galapagos to study the tortoises as a naturalist, not a tourist. I will have facilities and just help herpetology the best that I can.”
Michael– “Well basically along the same lines as Jack. Hopefully in 10 years I’ll have a PhD, working all around the world to helping turtles and tortoises. Obviously collaborating with Jack, Wyatt, and a bunch of other people in a large diverse network. Hopefully one day I hope to bridge the gap between sea turtle and freshwater turtle and tortoise groups. There is too large a divide there. Dr Pritchard did what he could there, but he was only one man. So I hope we can bring these groups together to better our commitment to conservation.”
As we come to the close of this interview, is there anything you would like to leave our readers with?
Michael– “All of the future opportunities in conservation will be presented to us because of the knowledge we are gaining to further our commitment to saving turtles. If we can do it, so can the rest of the world! We just have to care.”
Jack– “I would like to close with this. It is irritating when I’m sitting in school learning about what machines can do for us and how computers can do this, when I’m sitting over here thinking “Gee that’s wonderful, but what does it do for the 40,000,000 years of evolution we are losing from humans interfering with nature. We must integrate conservation of our planet, of nature, of all the species that are dying out. They don’t teach this in school. So it’s up to us to get the message out there to others, and maybe perhaps one day the government will integrate these lessons into schooling, but until then it’s up to organizations like theTurtleRoom, Garden State Tortoise, the Turtle Conservancy, the Turtle Survival Alliance, and people like us to let the world know to save these species NOW.”
After closing the interview, I spoke casually with these enthusiastic yet polite young men. The warm conversation surrounded personal turtle stories, opinions on conservation, displaying our collections of artifacts, books, and even sharing some of our live turtles! We discussed plans for attending population surveys, comedic things in the turtle community, and simply “turtle nerding” it out.
Wyatt, Jack, and Michael, who at the time of the interview had not yet graduated High School, left me in astonishment of their accomplishments. The commitment, dedication, and conscientiousness of these turtle heroes in training is truly admirable beyond praise! When we speak of chelonian conservation, as Jack strongly proposed, the time to act is now. When it comes to the future, I have faith that Michael, Wyatt, and Jack, will be the ones to watch. Dear reader, there is hope for the future of turtles and tortoises. It lies in the hands of our youth, the next generation of turtle heroes!
Image Credits: Top left, Jack Thompson. Top Right, Michael Skibsted. Bottom Left, Micheal Skibsted and Jack Thompson. Bottom Left Wyatt Keil