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Loggerhead Marinelife Center research team begins new projects, looks ahead

Loggerhead Marinelife Center’s research team is gearing up for the peak of sea turtle nesting season, with new projects on the horizon.

So far, ninety-three leatherback nests and over 5,600 loggerhead nests have been documented on the 9.5-mile stretch LMC monitors. The green sea turtles, predicted to have a high year this season, are the next to nest.

But it’s not all a numbers game – at least, as far as tallying up nests go.

After surveys, the team must return to the research laboratory to enter and examine the data. Traditionally during sea turtle nesting season, which runs March 1 through Oct. 31 in Palm Beach County, LMC’s team conducted morning nesting surveys and nighttime leatherback research. Now with Dr. Justin Perrault, LMC’s new associate director of research, the department looks forward to making more of a name for the Center within the research community.

Reasons behind research

Adrienne McCracken, LMC’s field operations manager, believes the most rewarding part of working in sea turtle research and conservation is being part of a bigger picture.

“The main thing we do here is focus our research around conservation,” says McCracken. “Nest counts help us see sea turtle health as a whole, like implications for the species and local populations. But, a big misconception is that we’re out there on the beach just counting nests and it’s so much more than that. We’re also mapping beach erosion events, collecting debris on the beach and observing other factors. By collecting and analyzing data, we’re part of a larger conservation effort to save sea turtles.”

Only about 10 to 20 percent of the the job is conducted on the beach – the rest is analyzing data on a computer, according to Perrault. With nearly 10 miles of beach to observe and hundreds of nests to count daily during season, LMC’s full-time research biologists rely on research technicians and interns that assist with data collections. The techs and interns are college students or recent graduates with a background in biology.

Projects in the works

Loggerhead Marinelife Center’s research team is currently working on over 30 research projects and collaborations with other organizations and institutions, including Florida Atlantic University, North Carolina State University, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and others.

These projects include a study on sea turtle metabolomics, a project on the effects of fibropapilloma (tumors commonly found in green sea turtles), a study on sea turtle health and implications in the Indian River Lagoon and studies on Goliath grouper and marine mammals, to name a few.

“It’s also great to collaborate within our own department – we each have different strengths and skill sets and so we have this nice puzzle fitting together,” said Perrault. “For example, Sarah can dedicate time to analyzing the data and I can take the time to look into grants and write more papers for publication. I think that’s what we were missing before we added another team member to the department.”

Sarah Hirsch, LMC’s data manager agreed, adding that with an additional staff position, the team can learn more from analyzing data, before sharing findings with the public through peer-reviewed publications. Two are already in review.

A job far from over

Because sea turtles are a long-lived species and sea turtle research has only been in existence for about 30 years, much has yet to be discovered. However, environmental success stories over the past two decades have given researchers even more of a reason to continue studying these prehistoric creatures.

In fact, LMC holds one of the oldest-running sea turtle nesting research programs in the state of Florida, which means it holds tremendous value for future research.

“This baseline data set helps us do research now, but also to look back at it in the future,” said Hirsch. “If we didn’t have that data set before, let’s say, the oil spill or last year’s dry summer we couldn’t compare the issues and trends we see.”

Perrault agreed.

“The population increase shows us that these animals are coming back from when they were low 30 or so years ago,” he said. “Now we are seeing that success story. These animals are recovering here in South Florida because of long-term work. So we can show our work as researchers and appeal for more research grant funding to continue monitoring trends and help these species.”