Exciting Diamondback Terrapin Projects

A lot has been happening over the winter and spring months. The big news is that we are involved in several diamondback terrapin projects (Malaclemys terrapin). First, we are working with collaborators at the Brevard Zoo, Department of Environmental Protection Southeast Aquatic Preserves and the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) to monitor terrapin populations in the Indian River Lagoon as there is little information regarding terrapins in the estuary and these brackish water turtles are facing an uncertain future throughout their range.

The second is we have two diamondback terrapins on permanent display at the FIT Marine Lab in Vero Beach. These post hatchling terrapins were confiscated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, along with 210 other turtles. They were being illegally shipped out of the country. For various reasons they cannot be returned to the wild so they have become ambassadors for education. The two we recently obtained had been sick for months with a shell infection, but they were nursed back to health by the good people at the Anchorage Museum.

So if you are in the area drop by the Vero Beach Marine Lab and see Baked and Alaska, our two incredibly cool diamondback terrapins. Also, stay tuned to our website as we will be announcing news of our upcoming sea turtle walks this summer.

Oh yes! It's a happy diamondback terrapin in our new education display.

Oh yes! It's a happy diamondback terrapin in our new education display.

Indian River Lagoon Science Festival a Big Success

Lead by Nancy, our Education Director, we participated in last Saturdays Inaugural Indian River Lagoon Science Festival and had a great time.  At our booth we had two activities, transponder tagged seahorses and 'how do you measure up to a sea turtle?'  The turnout was larger than we anticipated with children and adults of all ages checking out the many exhibits that ranged from physics to agricultural sciences.  And here's the best part, after days of downpours we didn't get rained out!

It was great to see so many engineers, marine biologists, entomologists and other scientists working on the Treasure Coast that were willing to share their knowledge with the community and young future scientists.  Nancy and her interns did an amazing job.  We want to thank everyone who came by our booth and participated (see details in the captions below).

Nancy is showing one of the young participants how to locate "Sunchip" the lined seahorse who was wearing a transponder tag.  The tag is recorded using a RFID receiver when it is passed close to the seahorse.  Currently we are not using these on seahorses, but this technology is used to study fish movements.

Nancy is showing one of the young participants how to locate "Sunchip" the lined seahorse who was wearing a transponder tag.  The tag is recorded using a RFID receiver when it is passed close to the seahorse.  Currently we are not using these on seahorses, but this technology is used to study fish movements.

In this activity, kids measured a paper mache green turtle shell (based on a real carapace) and then estimated the weight of the turtle using a regression equation.  We also had them measure their own torso and then plot their length and weight on a graph.

In this activity, kids measured a paper mache green turtle shell (based on a real carapace) and then estimated the weight of the turtle using a regression equation.  We also had them measure their own torso and then plot their length and weight on a graph.


Upcoming Beach Cleanup September 20th

We will be partnering with Keep Indian River Beautiful (KIRB) in conjunction with the Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup to pick up trash at South Beach Park on Saturday, September 20th.  The event will start at 8 AM and last until 11 AM or until you get tired of picking up trash.  Coastal Biology and KIRB will be providing drinks and supplies so you just need to bring yourself and a determination to clean the beach.  For more information and directions to South Beach Park, see our flyer.

During college my parents lived near St. Augustine Beach and on breaks from school I often walked the beach picking up trash.  One day an older woman saw me and said in a kind voice, "what a nice thing you're doing young man, you must be with the Boy Scouts."  And I replied in my no-nonsense way, "no ma'am, I just live here."  Even if you don't live here, help us clean our coastline for all to enjoy.

Plastic bottle washed up on Vero Beach in 2012 (Photo: R. Herren).

Plastic bottle washed up on Vero Beach in 2012 (Photo: R. Herren).

2014 Turtle Walk Summary

Now that we've had time to recuperate after the the turtle walk season, here are the results. Drum roll please....

We booked a total of 14 walks, including one that we cancelled during the presentation due to severe thunderstorms.  We had a total of 325 reservations out of 350 maximum (93%).  Once word got out though news media and other means, all of our walks in late June and the entire month of July were booked.  The average group size was 2.8 people.  Our actual attendance was 293 people including 230 adults (78%) and 63 children (22%).

Our success rate was negatively influenced by the Fourth of July weekend and the "supermoon" phenomenon, both of which led to more people and lights on the beach and, therefore, turtles deciding not to nest during the time we were out there.  The proportion of walks where participants saw a nesting loggerhead was 62%.  If we excluded the Fourth of July weekend, the success rate rose to 73%.  There was only one night when our scouts did not see any turtles emerging on the beach.

We recorded measurements on six loggerheads.  The straight carapace length (shell length) on those turtles averaged 92.0 cm with an average estimated weight of 236 lbs.  Overall, we were happy with our first year of turtle walks and look forward to making some minor adjustments to make next year even better.  A big thanks go out to everyone who helped or participated.

 

Turtle Hatching Season Picks Up Steam

It's mid-summer in Florida, the heat and humidity can be stifling as you feed the local mosquito population.  And, when is the frequent rain going to stop?  Then something happens to cheer everyone up.  Thousands of newly hatched sea turtles or hatchlings suddenly appear on the beach from nests deposited several months ago.

The turtle hatching season began over three weeks ago and is picking up steam.  The peak will be in August.  With an average incubation period of 53 days, nests from mid to late May are currently emerging on our beaches.  It's the beginning of a new generation and the mad dash for the sea.  It's also a time to remind locals and visitors that hatchling sea turtles need dark beaches to find the ocean.  Artificial lights found on homes, yards, swimming pools, businesses, parking lots and other structures cause turtles to crawl towards them and not the sea.  The mantra for controlling light is keep it low, keep it shielded, but most of all, keep it off the beach.

The Moon and Sea Turtles

The recent "supermoon" received a lot of media coverage over the weekend.  The full moon appeared larger in the sky because it's orbit was closest to the earth, which is called "perigee." "Supermoons" actually occur regularly.  Human nature, however, seems to be attracted to them. People have ascribed all sorts of things to the full moon with very little scientific support (1).

The question we often get is, "do sea turtles come out during a full moon?"  The short answer is they nest and emerge from nests during all moon phases.   Higher nesting in olive ridleys and some loggerhead populations has been correlated to the moon phase, but for the most part factors that affect nesting are unrelated to the moon (2).  However, hatchling orientation can be affected by a new moon.  Disorientation events increase during these times because artificial light sources become a stronger attraction in the absence of moonlight.

Some astrophysicists are frustrated by the media hype surrounding the "supermoon."  Ironically, so are we, but for different reasons.  Over the weekend, our turtle walk scouts witnessed five loggerheads emerge on the beach and then return to the ocean without nesting because of people, no doubt drawn outdoors to witness the "supermoon."  We would like to remind residents and visitors, regardless of the moon phase, that most sea turtles need beaches that are relatively dark and have less human activity in order to successfully nest.

1.  Culver, R., J. Rotton, and I.W. Kelly.  1988.  Geophysical variables and behavior: XLIX. Moon mechanisms and myths: a critical appraisal of explanations of purported lunar effects on human behavior. Psychological Reports, vol. 62, pp. 683-710.

2. Lohmann, K,. B. Witherington, C. Lohmann, and M. Salmon.  1997.  Orientation, navigation and natal beach homing in sea turtles. In: The Biology of Sea Turtles (P. Lutz and J. Musick eds.). CRC Press. New York. pp. 107-135.