[GUEST POST] By Rick Herren, PhD Student with UF IFAS Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department and UF IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station
Rarely do scientists work alone and Rick Herren, a PhD student with NCBS and UF WEC, is no exception. In 2001, Rick and a few of his colleagues formed a new company focused on studying sea turtles in the ocean. Since then the company, called Inwater Research Group (IRG), has captured thousands of turtles on projects carried out in Florida’s lagoons, bays and nearshore waters, but they haven’t done it alone. Researchers from over two dozen government agencies, universities and non-profits have joined them. The ability to study turtles in the ocean often depends on the quality of the research team. It’s not an easy environment to work in, permits are complicated and funding is often limited. While Rick is beginning his PhD studying the ecology of sea turtles along the Nature Coast in affiliation with UF and the Sea Turtle Conservancy, he recently had the opportunity to join IRG and other researchers on two projects in St Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve (SMMAP) just south of Crystal River.
Physiological Research on Sea Turtles in the SMMAP
The first sampling trip in May focused on collecting blood from juvenile green turtles with a tumor disease called fibropapillomatosis (FP) and from turtles without the disease. The purpose was to better understand the impacts of FP on the health of green turtles. Dr. Justin Perrault, Associate Director of Research at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, FL, headed the immunological aspect of the research and hopes to establish baseline biochemical, hematological and immune function parameters for green turtles with various degrees of FP. Green turtles in bays and lagoons throughout Florida are widely afflicted with FP and the Nature Coast is no exception. Since 2012, 120 out of the 169 juvenile green turtles captured (71%) in SMMAP have had tumors. While we still know little about the cause of FP, the tumors are non-cancerous and there is evidence that at least some turtles can fight it off and survive into adulthood.
The second trip recently completed in June also focused on sea turtle blood parameters, but for an entirely different reason. Every winter the New England Aquarium (NEA) rehabilitates cold-stunned Kemp’s ridley and green sea turtles stranded along the coast of Massachusetts. Kerry McNally, a NEA biologist and graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, is comparing the blood parameters, cloacal and oral microbiome (bacterial and fungal) of wild caught turtles to the animals undergoing rehabilitation at the aquarium. Bacterial and fungal communities may play a role in disease states, particularly pneumonia. A better understanding of the baseline health of wild sea turtles can lead to improved medical approaches and proper care of sick or injured turtles. In all, the researchers on these two trips captured 99 sea turtles in 11 days, mostly juvenile green turtles, but also Kemp’s ridleys and loggerheads. As Rick begins his PhD research focused on population dynamics and ecology of sea turtles on the Nature Coast, it’s a sure bet he won’t be doing it alone.
This research was conducted under FWC Marine Turtle Permit #125 and NMFS Permit #16598