Saturday, May 29, 2010

Scientists Encounter Rare Turtle During Research Trip

What started as an opportunity for Texas Tech University researchers to develop collaborative research relationship with others ended with a rare encounter with an endangered species now threatened by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

While on South Padre Island taking baseline samples to measure against the probable onslaught of oil heading for Texas shores, Phil Smith, an associate professor, and Greg Mayer, an assistant professor at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH), watched as a female Kemp’s ridley sea turtle made her way back down the beach after nesting in the dunes.

“We were extraordinarily fortunate to come across a sea turtle that had just nested,” Smith said. “We worked with permitted park officials to take the appropriate measurements and learn the identity of that particular turtle. Then they called in an expert to excavate the eggs. The eggs will go into a ‘headstart program’ that promotes hatchling success. Once the eggs have hatched, they’ll release them in the Gulf. Their survival is always tenuous at that stage of life, but now there’s another stressor that we’re really concerned about.”

From May 16 to May 21, researchers at TIEHH began building research relationships with researchers at the Ceasar Kleburg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University – Kingston, to collaborate oil spill research.

“This meeting paved the way for a lot of the things we were able to do there on this trip,” Smith said. “Fred Bryant, the director, has strong Texas Tech ties. His group has such great experience, expertise and access to properties in that part of Texas that we can’t touch. And we’ve got world-renowned contamination issues expertise. We’re potentiating our expertise and capabilities.”

Next, the group took Jeff Young of NPR’s “Living on Earth” to the Audubon Society’s Green Island Rookery. Rarely seen by the public, this preserve served as the backdrop for the radio program covering what could happen if oil seeps into animal sanctuaries such as this one. Listen to the program.

“If oil gets access to these kinds of areas it's not only difficult to clean it up but it could be devastating for the food source,” said Ron Kendall, director of TIEHH. “So, you might not have to directly kill the birds by oil. But when you take away food source or the habitat—for instance, the turtle grass flats, the inland flats where all your juvenile fish and shrimp and crabs are, those are the areas you’ve got to protect. It's why all these birds are here.”

Being on the island was an incredible experience, Smith said, because so many animals call it home.

“This is an incredibly important nesting ground for all manner of wading birds,” he said. “It was like being in a zoo with no fences. Every bird of every color, shape and size. It truly was a sight to behold and not many people get to see that.”

Next, TIEHH researchers met with Dr. Donna Shaver, chief of the division of sea turtle science and recovery with the National Parks Service at Padre Island National Seashore. They also met the head of science and resource management, Jim Lindsay, and discussed doing some baseline, pre-event monitoring of pollutants on the 60-mile long island. The group spent two days placing monitoring devices in the sand, and will return to remove and replace before oil hits the coast.

That’s when they met with the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Padre Island is the most important nesting ground in the United States for these animals. With the possibility of oil washing ashore, the scientists want to keep a close eye on how much goes where because oil is toxic to turtle nests.

These turtles, the smallest marine sea turtles in the world, once were so common, people in Mexico called the day they’d come to shore to lay eggs the “arribada”, meaning “arrival all at once.” Home movie footage from 1947 shows the arrival of approximately 42,000 turtles scrambling up the shoreline to nest.

“Before arribada, the turtles staged themselves offshore,” Smith said. “When conditions were right, they stormed the beaches at Rancho Nuevo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. They did that because it overwhelmed the predators. But the sad part about that is when humans caught wind of that, they would harvest the eggs to eat.”

Severe poaching for the tasty eggs and fishing practices drove them nearly to extinction, despite laws enacted in the 1960s to protect them. At their lowest point, only 702 turtle nests were counted in 1985. Since that time, the population has experienced a modest comeback, he said. About 8,000 females nested last year.

“To give you some idea, back when they first started counting in the 1980s, researchers documented only 11 nesting sites in all of Texas for Kemp’s ridley sea turtles – for the whole year,” he said. “The day we were working on Padre, 15 finds occurred on that island alone and 20 in Texas. But even seeing the one we did is uncommon. They told us that there are people who have worked there for 10 years and never seen one.”

Smith said a permitted park service employee tracked the turtle’s ID tags and radioed them to headquarters. Immediately, tracking information indicated that this particular turtle had already visited Padre Island this year to deposit a clutch of eggs. Females nest about 3 times a year.

“We’re trying to foster collaborative research efforts and are seeking any and all funding sources to help preserve a truly wonderful creature,” Smith said.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Texas Tech Cotton Decontamination Invention Perfect Cleanup Medium for Gulf Oil Rig Spill

Ramkumar3Fibertect, the same Texas Tech-created nonwoven cotton technology that keeps soldiers safe from chemical and biological warfare agents, may also serve as the perfect sponge for sopping up oil that has polluted the Gulf of Mexico.

As oil continues to gush from the exploded Deepwater Horizon oil rig, a Texas Tech University expert in nonwoven cotton technology says the fabric of our lives may do a better job to absorb the oil spill than the booms made of synthetic material.

The oil spill has now been called the worst in U.S. history.

“Already, several million feet of the oil-containment booms have been used to capture the oil spilling into the Gulf,” said Seshadri Ramkumar, associate professor of Nonwoven materials at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH). “They are made of synthetic materials, don’t biodegrade and absorb only a third of what raw cotton can do. The properties of raw cotton allow it to soak up 40 times its weight. With chemical modifications, it can soak up to as much as 70 times its weight. And it won’t just stay in a landfill forever.”

Ramkumar’s research focuses on developing value-added materials using nonwoven materials and nanotechnology. He supervises the Nonwoven and Advanced Materials Laboratory at TIEHH. Watch Fibertect in action here.

He is the creator of several nonwoven cotton technologies including Fibertect™, which is used in the U.S. military’s decontamination kits. He and a small group of his graduate students are researching ways to use lower-quality cottons that don’t make apparel grade for uses such as this.

“The nonwoven industry in the United States is well equipped with technologies that can develop oil-absorbent pads from natural fibers like cotton,” Ramkumar said.

In December 2008, the newly-developed decontamination wipe proved itself the best for cleaning up chemical warfare agents and toxic chemicals following an evaluation of Fibertect as part of a study by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Scientists tested the wipe using mustard gas and other toxic chemicals and found that the Texas Tech-created product out-performed 30 different decontamination materials, including materials currently used in military decontamination kits.

The results are published online in the American Chemical Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research and titled, “Next Generation Non-particulate Dry Nonwoven Pad for Chemical Warfare Agent Decontamination.”

Currently, the Fibertect wipe is under production by Hobbs Bonded Fibers of Waco and is distributed by First Line Technologies.

Fibertect for Oil Fact Sheet