The Turtle Man: Harding prof writes the book on Arkansas Crawly Critters

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Tuesday, August 10, 2004 8:15 PM CDT

Professor Mike Plumber of Harding University explains the unusual display of a yoke sack on the bottom of a newly hatched turtle Monday in his office. Plumber, a herpetologist and stand out in the study of turtles, is the co-author of a recently published encyclopedia of Arkansas amphibians and reptiles. Photo/Philip Holsinger

By Tim Bousquet
The Daily Citizen

Harding University biology professor Mike Plummer wrote the book on turtles. And snakes. And lizards.

In fact, he wrote the encyclopedia.

But he isn't exactly sure where his office is.

"They changed the name to the street," he said, trying to give a reporter directions. "Do you know where the Science Building is? It's the one with all the construction equipment in front of it. Well, use the door by the greenhouse, and walk down the hall. I'm in room number 150, except there aren't any numbers on the rooms because they're changing them all. I don't know what my new number is.

"Maybe you should ask someone where I am."

The greenhouse was eventually located behind a couple of backhoes and some construction debris, and with some perseverance and more than a little assistance from Plummer's colleagues, the reporter eventually found Plummer working at his desk, which sure enough was in an unmarked room off a communal office space.

The construction chaos ended at Plummer's door, and his office was neatly arranged, clean desk, books on the shelves, pictures of family.

The turtles were behind yet another door.

Earlier this year, Plummer and his students collected several hundred eggs from sand bars on the White River near Georgetown. They brought the eggs to Plummer's lab, and set them under incubation lights. Each egg was numbered, and as the eggs hatched the new-born turtles are transferred into shoe-box sized artificial environments.

"My personal view is that the student needs exposure to research," explained Plummer. "Whether in the library, or better yet, with field experience. This is a good example."

Plummer and his students are hoping to plumb the mysteries of the turtle egg yoke.

"About 75 percent of the yoke is still there when they hatch," he said. "We're asking, What is the role of yoke? It's apparently a huge food supply, but how much? Do they still have to forage for their food?"

The idea is to establish different environments for the hatchlings, with more or less of particular nutrients, water and heat, and compare how the turtles develop in each. From those observations, the group can make some educated speculation as to what role the yoke plays in the biology of turtledom.

At the end of the study, the hatchlings will be brought back to the river, but "only one in a thousand makes it in the wild."

The methodical scientific study of the amphibians in Plummer's lab will slowly add to the collective knowledge of the creatures, but Plummer already knows a thing or two about turtles.

Plummer's book, "The Amphibians and Reptiles of Arkansas" is the definitive encyclopedia on, well, the amphibians and reptiles of Arkansas.

Plummer downplays his role in producing the book - "my research is not intended to produce something like this," he said - and instead credits co-authors Stanley Trauth and Henry Robinson with the bulk of the work. Trauth teaches zoology at Arkansas State University Jonesboro, and Robinson teaches biology at Southern Arkansas University.

But when pressed, Plummer admits to having worked on and off on the project since 1976, and he takes obvious pride in the project.

It is a handsome book, its 421 pages filled with 540 photos and hundreds of line drawings by Renn Tumlison. Distribution maps detail the species' normal homes, and text detailing other specifics about the animals.

The book is designed for both academics and the general public, which accounts for its rise to local best-seller lists.

Plummer is particularly proud of the extensive bibliography accompanying each entry, allowing students and the curious to find everything ever written about each creature. He also points out a History of Arkansas Herpetology that opens the tome, which he says is unique to this state.

The work caps a career devoted to studying biology.

Plummer was a student at Harding College before earning his Ph.D.. from the University of Kansas. He returned to Harding in 1976, and has taught biology, bio-statistics, ecology and comparative anatomy, as well as herpetology.

"Harding is a small teaching school," he said. "Not a major research institution. But I believe even a basic education in biology needs research work. Students leave here well-prepared. They've gone on to nursing and medical schools.

"It's a very solid education."