Education

E.T. the desert tortoise — star of the Lindenwood-Belleville biology department

Lindenwood University-Belleville assistant professor Franziska Sandmeier holds Poppy, a desert tortoise. Sandmeier has focused her research on immunological health and disease in wild populations of reptiles.
Lindenwood University-Belleville assistant professor Franziska Sandmeier holds Poppy, a desert tortoise. Sandmeier has focused her research on immunological health and disease in wild populations of reptiles. News-Democrat

One of Lindenwood University-Belleville’s most popular residents isn’t the star of the football team, a student or particularly tall — although he’s definitely dark and some would say he’s kind of handsome in his own way.

E.T. is a 25-year-old desert tortoise who lived in the desert southwest before his home became a development site. Now he roams the hallway and classrooms of the Biology Department at Lindenwood-Belleville, where he seems to have as much fun hanging out with the students as they do having their unofficial mascot around.

E.T. is the adopted pet of assistant biology professor Franziska Sandmeier. In all, she has 22 desert tortoises that migrated east with her when she left the Universtiy of Nevada-Reno to work at Lindenwood-Belleville. While most of the other animals spend a majority of their time at Sandmeier’s home, E.T., named after the movie character whose green face and skinny, long neck was said to be based on a tortoise, mostly lives at the school.

“I think he loves being around the students as much as they love seeing him,” Sandmeier said. “He really seems to love the attention.”

E.T., a larger male who tips the scale at about 15 pounds, seems to enjoy people more than other male tortoises who he tends to fight with. So he lives separately at the school.

Sandmeier said E.T., who often is allowed to walk around in her class while she lectures or in the biology office when class is not in session, often poses in silly positions when people are around and then waits to get the attention of students before moving along.

Biology sophomore Amber Bouren, 19, of St. Louis, sat in the lab last week as E.T. scooted between her feet as she sat at a computer. Later she sat in the campus sunken garden feeding the tortoise leaves and grass as they both enjoyed some warmth and sunshine.

“I love animals so I am so excited to get to be around the tortoises,” Bouren said. “I love to see peoples’ expressions when they see me walking around campus with them.”

While students and staff members at Lindenwood seem to enjoy the tortoises, they’re not only there for fun and games.

Sandmeier recently received a $10,000 grant to assist in her research of tortoise respiratory disease and potential clues to fighting the disease in the animals’ DNA.

Sandmeier said, because of sprawl, the tortoises often have to be relocated. It seems that the move can be tough on their immune system and may have contributed to the animals becoming an endangered species. So researchers are trying to study the turtle’s anatomy to determine what conditions are best, health-wise, for relocating them.

Native to the southwest, desert tortoises can live in temperatures of up to 140 degrees. While they are a hearty species, the tortoises have seen their population drop by as much as 90 percent thanks to the destruction of their habitat.

Besides the construction of homes and roads, one of the biggest threats is the rise of expansive solar farms that capture the energy of the desert sun. When the solar arrays are constructed, workers spray chemicals to kill all the vegetation in the area which makes it uninhabitable for animals, according to Sandmeier.

Lindenwood University Belleville interim president Brett Barger said the presence of the tortoises on campus doesn’t only benefit the biology students who take care of them and study them.

He said students in other majors are fascinated when they see the exotic creatures that aren’t native to the metro-east.

“We always encourage people to go outside of their comfort zone and expose themselves to other things,” Barger said. “Seeing these tortoises up close is an experience they probably weren’t expecting. But they seem to really enjoy it.”

Amanda Reno, a 22-year-old senior from Belleville, volunteers at a wildlife rescue center in Ballwin, Mo., when she’s not at school. She said she is glad to see her fellow students exposed to wild animals so they appreciate them more.

“When you get to know these tortoises it’s easy to see that they all have their own personality,” Reno said. “They’re really amazing little creatures, and we’re lucky to have them here.”

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 618-239-2626. Follow him on Twitter: @scottwuerzBND.

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