From Big Night to the Big Day, Unity College’s turtle-loving Greg LeClair has exemplified what a Unity College Education can offer young conservationists

Greg LeClair at Unity College

It’s a chilly night in April, and the sun fell just a couple hours ago. The weather isn’t quite ideal for the Unity College Herpetology Club’s first ever organized Big Night, where students volunteer to help amphibians cross the road to their breeding pools. It’s a little colder than Greg LeClair (‘18), a wildlife biology major, would like, and the key ingredient — rain — is in the forecast, but there’s no sign of it yet.

Even so, Greg hands out reflective vests to the eight other volunteers, who are going to venture out to locations Greg has scouted for activity. Not only will they help wood frogs, newts, and salamanders cross the road, they’ll also study them. That is, if the rain ever shows up.

“It says on my phone right now that it’s supposed to be raining,” Greg says, disappointedly looking at a weather app on his phone. Sure enough, just as he utters those words, a drop of rain touches down. Then another, and another. It’s light, but it’s enough to inspire the crew. The group packs up their gear — construction cones, flashlights, and headlamps — piles into the back of a Unity College cargo van and Greg’s Toyota, and begins the first ever Big Night.

During his four years at Unity College, Greg left a substantial mark.

“I was chatting with a fellow faculty member just a couple days ago and he mentioned, when discussing a recent Unity recruit, that this student had the potential to be the next Greg LeClair,” Dr. Matt Chatfield, Associate Professor of Conservation Biology, recalled during an end-of-the-year awards presentation. “As if Greg is the standard to which we are holding all of our promising new students. That is the impact that Greg has had on our school.”

“One of the great joys of being president of America’s Environmental College is that I get to meet, and have some small part of helping lead, amazing people like Greg,” said Unity College President Melik Peter Khoury. “These are individuals, young and old, who are passionate — some might say obsessed — about learning and about doing the right thing for some of the world’s most vulnerable animals. What an honor for me.”

In addition to coordinating the school’s first ever Big Night event, Greg, who served as president of the herpetology club, received the student award for Scientific Engagement in the Ecology & Management Program, as well as Unity College’s Marshal Gerrie Award, which is given out every year to a student for exceptional contributions to the student body.

What he’s likely best known for, however, is his work with wood turtles.

In the spring of 2015, Greg and other Unity College students began working a wood turtle research project, which was developed by Dr. Chatfield and Dr. Cheryl Frederick, Associate Professor of Captive Wildlife Care and Education, through a partnership with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Greg and others would search for turtles in various locations in central Maine, where they would mark them; collect data such as shell size, claw size, sex, and sometimes even take DNA samples; and then send them back on their way.

“It’s that collection of information that allows us to determine whether or not a species needs actual protection,” Greg explained while on one such outing. “So for example, with wood turtles, we determine whether or not they’re present in the area, and what habitats they need in order to survive. Once we get that information, and we can determine whether or not they need real protection, they become protected by law.”

MDIF&W has declared the wood turtle a “species of special concern,” and as a Priority 1 species of greatest conservation need in Maine’s Wildlife Action Plan.

This summer, after graduation, Greg will continue his work and research at Unity College, returning for an internship program, with aspirations to someday tackle grad school and enter into an environmental consulting career.  

“He is ALWAYS thinking,” said Dr. Chatfield, who also serves as Greg’s work-study supervisor, thesis advisor, and internship sponsor. “Thinking about new projects, thinking about how to improve a project, thinking about what has been done in the field and where there are gaps that need to be filled. This is what it means to be a scientist. This is the best that Unity can and does produce.”

The Herpetology Club pulls over to the side of a pretty inactive road, where students spring from the van and into action. Greg stations two members of the team as bookends of the roadway, whose job it is to yell “Car!” when a vehicle approaches, and to also remind drivers to go a safe speed. The rest of the club is on the lookout for some sign of amphibians trying to cross the road to get to their spring breeding pool.

Though it’s a location that Greg has scouted previously, the first stop of the night is pretty quiet — more crickets than spring peepers. The team forges on, tromping around some of the dampest areas along the road in search of activity, headlamps and flashlights swooping hither and thither. Still nothing, even as the rain intensifies.

Greg is ready to call it, but just as the crew begins to pack up its orange cones and turn off their flashlights, he spots something blending in with the wet pavement. “Hey, we’ve got a frog!” he yells out to the club in a rush of excitement. Greg scoops it up, holding it in his hands with his headlamp pointed in its direction so that he can study it. Everyone, including Dr. Chatfield, gathers around him, as he carefully examines the wood frog.

“Is it a male or female?” Chatfield asks.

“I think it’s a female,” Greg responds, closely eyeing the frog’s tiny hands, based on her tiny thumbs and small tympana, which are the external eardrums behind the eye.

He snaps a photo of it, and brings her across the road safely to her destination.

“Onto the next stop?” Greg asks the group, as they pile back into the van for what will be a busy night — and season — for the club.