GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Leadership at John Ball Zoo and Grand Valley State University’s Department of Biology have announced they are working to expand their partnership, providing more opportunities for students to get hands-on experience and participate in projects to help species in the West Michigan ecosystem.

To date, GVSU and John Ball Zoo have conducted research and performed field work to help several different West Michigan animals, including the Eastern box turtle and Grand River sturgeon. More studies are in the works.

Last year, John Ball Zoo was able to give more than $40,000 in grants to help cover the costs of these projects.

“Funding for these grants comes from zoo visits and memberships, so our community should know they are helping contribute to the conservation of wildlife and wild spaces. We look forward to continuing our partnerships with GVSU for years to come,” John Ball Zoo conservation manager Bill Flanagan said in a release.

Dr. Janet Vigna, the chairperson of the GVSU Department of Biology, has called the partnerships a huge success.

“As we talked about other collaborations, we mentioned to John Ball Zoo that we really would love all of our students to have high-impact research opportunities,” Vigna told News 8. “(Our students) often go into these projects with faculty in the summer or the start of the school year without funding. And John Ball Zoo immediately reached out and said, ‘Hey, we would love to support some students for summer research projects.’ And so that sort of took off.”

According to Vigna, the Zoo was able to cover projects for six students this past summer and they plan to provide more funding for students next summer.

Over the last three years, the partnership has raised and released 44 Eastern box turtles into the wild and have 12 hatchlings that are working their way toward being released.

Grand Valley State and John Ball Zoo have also partnered with the Grand Rapids Public Museum and Encompass LLC to continue studies into sturgeon that live in the Grand River. The team has mapped the sturgeon’s habitat and conducted surveys to look for sturgeon for the last four years. This past year, the team was able to track three young sturgeon and one adult fish. Two of the juvenile sturgeon were captured, marked and released.

GVSU and the zoo are also launching a study into freshwater mussels and their impact on the Grand River — a review the zoo said hasn’t been done in 20 years. The field work for that study is expected to be conducted in 2023 and 2024.

Vigna believes the partnership works so well because their missions are so closely aligned.

“I think our biology program is unique in that it is very environmentally oriented,” Vigna said. “Our programs are biology, natural resources management, fisheries and aquatic science, and wildlife biology. So, we really are a great partner for John Ball Zoo in this area. Our work really overlaps.”