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.

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