UD students spend winter in Hawaii studying whales

March 17, 2014 under CANR News

Rebecca Moeller spent her winter break in Hawaii studying whalesWhile most Delawareans were inundated with cold and snow this winter, using shovels and plows to get out of their driveways, University of Delaware student Rebecca Moeller was busy working in the warm sunshine with whales in a place known as something of a tropical paradise: Hawaii.

Working in Maui through an internship with the Ocean Mammal Institute, Moeller, a senior majoring in animal science and minoring in wildlife conservation in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said she spent three weeks tracking pods of humpback whales to see what effect boats had on their behavior.

She explained that during four-hour shifts, either from 8 a.m.-noon or 1-5 p.m., she and her team would be stationed on a cliff about a half a mile offshore, or at another location right on the shore, equipped with binoculars and looking for pods of whales.

“We would try to find one pod and then we would keep track of that pod for 20 minutes. Once we had a 20-minute period without a boat near the pod, we would keep track of the behaviors when there was a boat within half a mile, and then again once the boat was out of range for 20 minutes,” explained Moeller.

Tracking behavior wasn’t the only thing Moeller did during her internship, however; she also learned how to use a theodolite — a surveying instrument used to track coordinates — in order to pinpoint the locations where they spotted the pods.

Moeller said that team members would usually work with four or five pods a day and they would do an analysis of the pods at the end of every day.

“We would map them and then record how much down time there was and how many surface behaviors there were,” said Moeller. “Then at the end of the internship, we had to write a research paper using all of the data that we had collected.”

The interns also had to take a three-hour class every night after completing all of their work. So while it’s natural for everyone to hear Hawaii and automatically think of rest and relaxation, Moeller stressed that she spent the majority of her time hard at work.

“We were able to go snorkeling, but that was about the only thing that we had time for. I mean, the condos that we stayed at were right on the beach so we were able to appreciate the beauty of it, but we didn’t get much down time,” said Moeller.

Not that that was a bad thing, especially since she was able to fulfill a lifelong dream. “Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a dolphin trainer. A lot of people have that phase, only I never really grew out of it. I’ve always just really loved marine mammals,” said Moeller.

She added that the internship would also help her after graduation as she enters the career field.

“In my future endeavors I really want to work in conservation biology for marine mammals and this definitely helped push me in that direction because I always knew that I wanted to be involved with dolphins and whales and porpoises,” she said. “Having this experience kind of showed me that conservation biology is definitely the direction that I want to go.”

Moeller was joined on the trip by another UD student, Alessandra Fantuzzi, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Article by Adam Thomas

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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In memoriam: Friends, colleagues remember Prof. John Dohms

March 10, 2014 under CANR News

In Memoriam: John DohmsThe University of Delaware extends condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of John E. Dohms, a retired professor of animal and food sciences at the University, whose death was confirmed by Newark Police on Feb. 28. Prof. Dohms had been missing since Sept. 13, 2012.

A member of the UD faculty for 32 years, Dr. Dohms retired in 2009 with the rank of professor of microbiology of infectious diseases. His research focused on the pathology of avian disease, and his former students have praised his inspirational teaching and the impact he has had on their lives and careers.

Mark Rieger, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), said, “We at CANR grieve the loss of a dedicated colleague and friend who touched the lives of numerous students, faculty and staff. John’s contributions and impacts to the ANFS program were unparalleled.”

Limin Kung, S. Hallock du Pont Professor of Animal and Food Sciences, wrote, “John was respected and loved by all of us to the highest degree. At the height of his career, he was one of the best teachers and an excellent researcher. Students UNIVERSALLY loved him, because of his kind and caring nature as a person and mentor. Students flocked to his classes and to him as an academic adviser. Colleagues regularly sought advice and collaborated with him. As important as all other things, John was a good friend to all of us!”

Jack Gelb Jr., chairperson of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences, said, “John will be missed by many friends and colleagues in this country who benefited from his service and contributions to the field of animal health. His legacy is reflected in the many fine students he mentored and trained and his sincere desire to make the world a better place.”

“Our thoughts and prayers go to Dr. Kim Herrman, John’s partner of over 25 years and an alumnus of our ANFS program, as well as many other family members and friends,” Rieger said.

Born in New York City, Dr. Dohms graduated from Fair Lawn High School in New Jersey in 1966. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Bowling Green State University in 1970 and 1972, respectively, and earned his Ph.D. in veterinary microbiology from Ohio State University in 1977.

In addition to being a collegiate lacrosse player and lifelong fan of that sport, Dr. Dohms was an avid athlete and outdoorsman who enjoyed swimming, running, whitewater rafting or biking. He took many trips with his friends to experience the outdoors in Central and South America, Africa, New Zealand and the United States, and to pursue his passions that also included fly-fishing and birding.

He is survived by his partner, Kim A. Herrman of Newark, Del.; his brothers, Peter Dohms of Payson, Ariz., and James Dohms of Bradenton, Fla.; his nine nieces and nephews, as well as numerous friends and colleagues.

The family requests that memorial contributions be made in his name and suggests some of his favorite causes and institutions, including the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Delaware, Trout Unlimited and the National Audubon Society.

Details of a memorial service will be announced at a future date.

Condolences may be left online at www.rtfoard.com.

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UD class presents award-winning display at Philadelphia Flower Show

March 4, 2014 under CANR News

UD class presents award-winning display at Philadelphia Flower ShowThanks to an interdisciplinary class and a new registered student organization (RSO), the University of Delaware again has an exhibit at this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show, which runs through March 9 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. This year’s educational exhibit takes on an ecological theme, specifically the key role of American shad, a fish that once held a prominent place in the Brandywine River but has seen a drastic population decline in recent years.

The project aims to raise public awareness of the issue by helping educate those in attendance on the importance of shad and the ecosystem services they provide to the Brandywine, which supplies the city of Wilmington’s drinking water. The UD group received a “Special Achievement: Best Achievement in Social Change Messaging” award for the display.

The class is called Design Process Practicum and is taught by Jules Bruck, associate professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences; Anthony Middlebrooks, associate professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration; and Jon Cox, assistant professor in UD’s Department of Art.

The newly formed RSO is called Design and Articulture (DART) and its members — many of whom are also in the class — helped with the creation of this year’s display.

The exhibit examines the Brandywine River and features flowers native to the Brandywine Valley that would naturally grow along its banks in the spring, as well as showing how shad once populated the river in large numbers. “Prior to settlement along the Brandywine we’ve read accounts of the water ‘boiling black’ with shad,” said Bruck, who explained that a lot of the dams along the Brandywine have prevented the shad from swimming upstream.

Some of these dams are historical treasures that can’t be removed — such as the dam at Hagley Museum — and part of the exhibit displays an alternative to dam removal known as a fish ladder. Bruck explained that a fish ladder is one of several techniques that can be used when there is a dam impeding fish trying to upstream.

“A fish ladder has short steps that the fish can flop up and over and get through them pretty easily, and depending on how high the water is, it’s easier at some times than others,” said Bruck, who explained that the group’s version of a fish ladder was a very contemporary version, not a realistic one. “It’s an idea that we just want people to be aware of,” she said.

The reason the group chose to focus on shad is that the fish is important culturally, historically and as indicator species to the relative health of the Brandywine.

Culturally, the shad were once linked to the Brandywine much like blue crab are linked to Baltimore. Middlebrooks explained that Gerald Kauffman, project director for the Water Resources Agency, was a guest speaker at a class session and explained the historical significance of the shad. Kauffman related to the class a story about how Washington’s troops were starving at Valley Forge and the shad migrated north just in time to provide a food supply.

Shad are also a very important indicator species. “Of course we’re interested in the species and their success but as many experts have now told us, shad are very indicative of water quality in the Brandywine watershed, which, of course, supplies all of Wilmington’s drinking water,” said Middlebrooks.

UD class presents award-winning display at Philadelphia Flower ShowDART

DART is a relatively new RSO and Weber Stibolt, a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) and club president, said that its members wanted to form a group to get more recognition for the project. “It’s been kind of an underground project these past couple of years; not a lot of people have known about it.”

Stibolt said that the club has 12 members right now and that his favorite part of working on the project has been learning about aspects of agriculture that he doesn’t get exposed to in his major.

Sydney Bruck, freshman in CANR and member of DART, said the RSO offers students who are in the class now and want to help out with the exhibit next year — but might not have room in their schedule to take the class again — a chance to participate. “If you don’t want to take the class again next year to be involved, you can still be part of the RSO and be involved,” said Bruck.

Bruck also said she enjoyed the interdisciplinary aspect of the project. “I think when you get a bunch of landscape designers together for a flower show, it’s missing something. It’s not complete. Or if you have a bunch of designers or art majors for an art project, it’s still very one sided. But I think we have a very well-rounded exhibit because of all the people, and I think the students really enjoy learning from each other, too.”

Future benefits

Another reason the professors enjoy having the students work on the flower show is that it looks great on their resumes when they apply for future jobs or internships.

Jules Bruck said that a student who worked on the show in the past came to her and said he applied for an internship and the Philadelphia Flower Show project was on his resume. “There’s no doubt in my mind that I got my internship because of the Philadelphia Flower Show. When I got my interview, that’s all they wanted to talk about,” Bruck said the student told her.

Middlebrooks said that the project is “really much more consequential for students long term. It provides yet another opportunity for them to get engaged with professors, get engaged outside the University. They make a variety of connections and I know a number of students have explicitly credited the flower show being on their resume with landing internships, even a Disney internship.”

Middlebrooks also noted that the interdisciplinary and creative aspects of the class help the students in the long run because, in his experience, when people apply for jobs, companies are looking for two main things: creativity and collaboration. “So we’re always looking for ways to really maximize that. And that’s really limited if you just do that in your own discipline, or in a single class, so the flower show has always and continues to serve as an opportunity to cross disciplines,” said Middlebrooks.

Hometown roots

The project is particularly important for Cox who grew up along the Brandywine and said that he remembers playing in the river as a child.

“Some of my earliest memories are actually going down the Brandywine in this little inflatable Sevylor two-person boat with my sister,” said Cox. “So the Brandywine has always been special to me and we go canoeing a couple times a year and we started taking my son there now and he is two and a half now and so he’ll be able to grow up and have some of the same experiences.”

Group effort

Of course, the flower show couldn’t happen without the flowers, and getting the native plants to bloom and look like they would in the spring was no easy feat, especially during such a rough winter.

Bruck was in charge of growing the plants and the students helped out as well. Bruck also thanked Rodney Dempsey, Bill Barts and Joyce Zayakosky, members of the UD Greenhouse staff, for all that they did to get the flowers blooming on time.

The group also thanked the Center for Teaching and Effectiveness and Learning (CTAL), the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society for help funding the project, and Kauffman and Sherri Evans-Stanton, director of the Brandywine Conservancy, for speaking to the class about the shad.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Jon Cox

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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UD professor seeks holistic understanding of disease resistance in maize

February 25, 2014 under CANR News

UD professor seeks holistic understanding of disease resistance in maizeThe University of Delaware is leading an interdisciplinary project aimed at unraveling the biology of a durable form of disease resistance in maize.

A grant from the National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program (NSF-PGRP) has brought together a team of experts in breeding, genetics, pathology, bioimaging and computer science to generate new knowledge that can be leveraged in the staple crop when breeding for disease resistance.

Randall Wisser, assistant professor in UD’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences is leading the five-year, $3.9 million project.

Working with seven other investigators at Iowa State University (ISU), Cornell University, North Carolina State University (NCSU), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), Wisser explained that the group is trying to gain a holistic understanding of disease resistance.

“To date, we’ve focused on dissecting the genetics, trying to figure out what the genes are,” said Wisser. “In some cases we’ve been successful, but there are many more genes we have not yet identified; we still don’t understand how the genes work or how they act together to cause resistance.”

How cells react

A significant component of the project at UD consists of the researchers adapting bioimaging technologies to study natural genetic variation in disease resistance. For this, three of the labs are collaborating.

In controlled environments, Rebecca Nelson, professor at Cornell University, and Peter Balint-Kurti, research geneticist with USDA-ARS at NCSU, perform genetic experiments from which infected tissue is sampled and shipped off to UD.

Wisser and Jeff Caplan, director of the BioImaging Center at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute (DBI), work together to analyze microscopic images of the samples.

Studying hundreds of tissue samplesthe team captures numerous snapshots across each sample in microscopic detail and in 3D. Then, from more than 1,000 separate images taken on each sample, the researchers use computational techniques to reconstruct the images into their original form.

With these large format images, the team initiated a collaboration with Chandra Kambhamettu, professor in UD’s Department of Computer and Information Sciences and director of the Video/Image Modeling and Synthesis (VIMS) Laboratory, to adapt methods from computer vision research that allow features within the images — such as the number of cells the pathogen has infected — to be characterized.

In the end, the team is able to gain an understanding of how a specific resistance gene or a group of resistance genes act to cause resistance.

Wisser summarized the technique’s important effect, saying, “We’re not just taking a picture of the surface, we’re actually taking pictures as though we are peeling layers off the tissue one at a time. Also, because of the relatively large area of the leaf we can now image, we can observe plant-pathogen interactions at an unprecedented scale and gain a better understanding of variation in the interactions between pathogens and plants.

“Essentially, what we’ve been able to achieve is the development of an imaging and analysis platform that allows us to quantitatively examine the effects of different genes at the tissue and cellular level. It’s eye-opening, and we’ve only begun scratching the surface.”

Gene identification

The team is simultaneously trying to shine light on the specific genes that underlie disease resistance.

Jim Holland, research geneticist with USDA-ARS at NCSU, leads a component of the project on genetic mapping. Holland, Balint-Kurti, Nelson and Wisser collaborate on sequencing and comparing the genomes of over 250 maize varieties using advanced techniques in genetic mapping, when researchers try to determine the specific genes that control a characteristic like plant disease resistance.

There is typically uncertainty in the process. Therefore, Balint-Kurti and Nick Lauter, assistant professor from ISU, are validating the effects of these genes by searching for extreme mutations and deregulating the gene. If disruptions of the gene cause a change in the plants’ resistance to disease, then they know they are onto something.

Lauter and Alicia Carriquiry, professor from ISU, are also working with Cornell and NCSU to study how the genes are regulated when the pathogens infect. A gene may be turned on or off in response to infection, which further clues the researchers in to the genes that underlie resistance.

Looking at all of these results together allows the researchers to understand the genes associated with resistance, how they function in terms of their internal wiring, how they connect to each other to form a network, and how that network gives rise to disease resistance or susceptibility.

An applied impact

The work on this project addresses issues that relate to the global sustainability of agriculture. Pathogens often evolve quickly to overcome the resistance genes in the cultivars breeders produce, resulting in a constant tug-of-war between the breeder and the pathogen.

This basic research project intersects with applied efforts to have greater durability in disease resistance. The knowledge, methods and resources from the project can be leveraged in the breeding of varieties that have longer lasting resistance, resulting in better food security.

Wisser said that while the group is using maize for its study, the results could have positive effects on many plants. “The things we find are not just applicable to maize and diseases we’re working on here, but there are also some general rules that are likely to surface. So we think that our project has more to offer than helping to solve the issues associated with these specific diseases and the crop that’s the focus of the project.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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College of Agriculture and Natural Resources announces Ag Day date

February 24, 2014 under CANR News

Ag Day 2014Ag Day, an annual tradition of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) at the University of Delaware, will be held on Saturday, April 26, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The theme of Ag Day 2014 is “Feed the World. Protect the Planet.” In keeping with this theme, the Food Bank of Delaware will be on hand accepting donations of non-perishable food items.

Members of the campus community, and the surrounding community, are encouraged to join the college for a day filled with music, exhibitors, great food, and fun on UD’s South Campus.

Celebrating all that the college has to offer, visitors can experience everything from bird shows to bee demonstrations, livestock exhibits, 4-H arts and crafts, farm tours, plant sales, and much more.

The event will be held at CANR’s Townsend Hall, located at 531 South College Avenue in Newark. Both admission and parking are free and the event is open to the public.

Ag Day is family friendly, however, for the safety of the live animal demonstrations, organizers ask that all pets be left at home.

Registration for exhibitors and vendors is now open and runs until March 14. Registration is available on the Ag Day website.

The website also features additional information, announcements, and schedules, and will be updated as the event approaches.

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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UD sets symposium on global challenges in agriculture, environment, energy

February 19, 2014 under CANR News, Events

A group of CANR students and professors at UFLA in Brazilsymposium highlighting the global impact of work by University of Delaware and Brazilian faculty, graduate students and undergraduate interns will be held May 21-22 at the Trabant University Center on the UD campus in Newark.

Widely considered one of the world’s most important emerging and developing countries, Brazil has one of the largest and fastest growing agricultural economies in the world and is a major U.S. trade partner.

nterest in Brazil’s rapid transition to global leadership in food and bioenergy production, along with the environmental and economic issues surrounding this transition, has led to partnerships between UD and the Federal University of Lavras (UFLA).

Led by UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) over more than three years, a wide range of research projects, faculty and student exchanges, study abroad programs and collaborative workshops have been held.

The symposium will bring together a large and diverse group of UFLA and UD faculty and students to share knowledge on key themes in Brazil that have global impacts on food security and the environment.

Keynote presentations will be made by Luiz Roberto Guimarães Guilherme, professor of soil and environment at UFLA, who will speak on “Brazil’s Role as a Global Food Basket: Challenges and Opportunities.”

Other keynote presentations will be made by Paul Thompson, W.K. Kellogg Chair in Food, Agricultural and Community Ethics at Michigan State University, who will discuss ethical issues related to biofuels, and Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee, speaking on the importance of building agricultural links between Delaware and Brazil.

Important themes of the symposium include agricultural innovations for global food production systems; food safety and security in the global food chain; ecology and sustaining and protecting fragile environments; and ethical and public policy issues concerning biofuels.

The symposium is co-sponsored by CANR; UFLA; UD’s Center for Science, Ethics, and Public Policy; UD’s College of Arts and Sciences; the Delaware Environmental Institute; the Institute for Global Studies; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture International Science and Education program.

To obtain more information on the symposium and to pre-register, visit the website.

The institutions have worked cooperatively on a USDA-funded agricultural research project and UD has hosted UFLA speakers.

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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Charter student completes research in Seyfferth’s lab

February 19, 2014 under CANR News

charter student completes research in Angelia Seyfferth's labWhen Rohith Venkataraman, a junior who attends the Charter School of Wilmington, decided to search for research being conducted by University of Delaware professors, he did not know what he would find. By chance, he came across Angelia Seyfferth’s research and sent her an e-mail asking if he could help out in her lab.

Now, about a year since that e-mail was sent, not only has Venkataraman completed his research with Seyfferth, assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, and Gang Li, a postdoctoral researcher in Seyfferth’s lab, but that research helped him place first in the plant science section of his school’s science fair. He will now be presenting his research project at the 19th annual Delaware Technical Community College Science Expo in February.

“It’s safe to say that email was a great decision,” said Venkataraman. “Dr. Seyfferth has been encouraging and helpful right from the get go and I have had a wonderful research experience under her guidance and Dr. Li’s tutelage.”

The research began last summer when Venkataraman worked with Seyfferth and Li on a plant science project dealing with the arsenic uptake mechanism in rice plants. Venkataraman said that Seyfferth’s previous work suggested that one can decrease the amount of arsenic assimilated by a plant if one adds silicic acid to the growth media of rice plants.

“This promising research could lead to new ways of growing rice in areas with high arsenic contents in the soil,” said Venkataraman. “As a means to confirm literature and test our own variables, we designed and grew plants over a period of 3 weeks, 6 weeks, and 9 weeks. The plants were then flash frozen and stored in a freezer for further RNA analysis of oxidative stress genes and total arsenic content analysis.”

Venkataraman said that the procedure for extracting RNA and analysis was “quite complex. There were many steps each requiring careful attention to details. The procedure required adding small quantities of many solutions and centrifuging the tissue numerous times.”

As for his favorite part of the project, Venkataraman explained that he enjoyed assisting Li with changing the nutrient solutions for the plants and assisting with the liquid nitrogen flash freezing.

“The attributes of chemicals and their properties have always amazed me,” said Venkataraman. “I have always looked forward to Dr. Seyfferth’s insight on scientific aspects of the research, which she has enthusiastically shared with me. Dr. Li has guided and explained about various processes that we were working on. Both of them have expanded my horizon of knowledge and made my experience at the lab and research something that I have looked forward to.”

Seyfferth said that she was “impressed by Rohith’s questions and scientific inquisitiveness, he is a highly motivated young student.” Seyfferth added that she is “eager to continue providing research opportunities for high school students across Delaware.”

As for his plans for after high school, Venkataraman said that he is not sure what he wants to do yet but that he is exploring studying molecular biology along with a pre-med track.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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CANR’s Summer Institute accepting applications for 2014 session

February 18, 2014 under CANR News

CANR summer institute is now accepting applicationsThe University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) will offer a 10-week Summer Institute for underrepresented populations of undergraduate students who have an interest in pursuing graduate degrees in the agricultural and natural resource sciences.

The Summer Institute will be held on the UD campus in Newark from Monday, June 9, through Friday, Aug. 15.

The program is now accepting applications and the application deadline is April 1. The program is open to students at UD as well as other universities. Enrollment is limited to five undergraduate students and preference is given to students who are completing the junior year of their academic program.

The Summer Institute is intended to provide participating students with an opportunity to learn about the varied and exciting opportunities available in graduate education in the college.

Past Summer Institute scholars conducted research in a variety of topics at CANR, such as studying rice blast disease in rice, heading to coastal communities to poll beachgoers on their opinions about offshore energy production and looking at arsenic in mushrooms and its effect on the human diet.

To read more about past Summer Institute sessions, click here.

Since 2009, 21 students have completed the Summer Institute program.

Maria Pautler, program coordinator, has kept in touch with Summer Institute alumni. “Former participants have found the program quite helpful in discerning their future education options. Several students are now enrolled in graduate programs within the CANR,” said Pautler. “Other students have been accepted into graduate schools in the agricultural and natural resources sciences, such as Ross University Veterinary School, George Washington University and Michigan State University.”

Travel expenses and housing costs provided in University residence halls will be covered. Transportation from residence halls to CANR facilities will be discussed. All students will also receive a stipend to help cover costs of participation.

For more information, contact Tom Sims, CANR deputy dean, at jtsims@udel.edu.

To download an application, click here.

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UD alumna studies leatherback sea turtles in Costa Rica

February 17, 2014 under CANR News

UD alum Lauren Cruz studies leatherback sea turtles in Costa RicaIt’s not every day that you get to see a creature that has been around for 110 million years emerge from the ocean and lay its eggs on the beach. Unless, of course, you’re like University of Delaware graduate Lauren Cruz, who spends her days in Costa Rica with the Leatherback Trust studying leatherback sea turtle nesting ecology.

Cruz, a 2013 graduate who studied wildlife conservation in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is tracking the demographics of the turtles that nest at Playa Grande and Parque Nacional de las baulas — which translates to the park of leatherback sea turtles — and spends her nights with a team patrolling the beach looking for nesting turtles.

When they find a turtle, they will scan it to see if it is a returning turtle. If not, they will outfit the turtle with a tag in order to track it.

“We also count the eggs, and sometimes we have to relocate the eggs, depending on whether they’re close to the water, close to the vegetation, and then after they lay the eggs, we monitor their nests and see them through until the hatchlings grow out of the nest,” said Cruz.

Cruz has worked with the organization since October and said her favorite part of the work is the turtles, but that she also enjoys learning about the Costa Rican culture.

“What’s great is that out here they have a good ecotourism program where the locals — a lot of them who used to be poachers — found that it’s more sustainable to take tourists out to see the turtles rather than take their eggs,” said Cruz, who explained that the organization will work with groups of locals to help locate nests.

“When we find a turtle, we tell them so they can grab their tourist and it’s just a great experience working with the local Costa Ricans,” Cruz said. “And my Spanish has gotten much better since I’ve been here. So it’s a cultural experience and I really like working with the community and the education aspect of it.”

Cruz said that so far this winter, they have had 24 individual leatherback sea turtles nest on the beach. She said that this figure is in line with the amount they had last year, but they are hoping to see an increase any time soon. The nesting season lasts until March so there is still some time and Cruz is optimistic that they will have more turtles nest on the beach.

Still, when compared to numbers from the past, it becomes obvious why leatherback sea turtle conservation is of the upmost importance. “When they first started doing this project, 20 years ago, they’d have 1,000 individuals or so on the beach so it’s sad that it went from 1,000 to 20,” said Cruz.

Cruz said that while the leatherback turtles who nest on the Caribbean coast have seen a population rebound in recent years, ones that nest on the Pacific coast are still critically endangered. “A major facet to their endangerment is the development because so many people want this beach,” said Cruz. “They want to develop on it and they want to build hotels, and when they build hotels they emit a lot of light and also change the topography of the beach so it makes it unusable for turtles to nest on it anymore.”

Cruz also said that climate change is a threat to leatherback sea turtles, as the species is temperature dependent on determining if a turtle will be male or female. “The pivotal point for the sex ratio of leatherback sea turtles is 29.4 degrees Celsius, so any nests that incubate above that temperature will be mostly female and any nests that incubate below that temperature will yield mostly males,” said Cruz.

Because the sand heats up sooner and there is a shorter wet season, the turtle clutches are hypothesized to yield more females than males, which will ultimately lead to a population decline. Cruz also said she has observed the eggs in the nest have been heating above their critical temperature which has cut down on nest success.

The other big threat is long line fisheries that catch leatherback sea turtles in their hooks.

As for how she got interested in turtles, Cruz said that it happened during her time at UD. “It’s definitely something that came about at UD. While at UD, I was able to participate in a lot of different research projects to figure out what I was really interested in because I knew I loved wildlife but I wasn’t sure what kind of animal or what kind of area I wanted to work with,” said Cruz.

Cruz said that it was while at UD on a study abroad trip with Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at UD, that she fell in love with sea turtles and with Costa Rica. “I think that’s a big factor as to why I’m here and was selected for the position, because I had known of Costa Rica and had traveled here before. And also, the first time I came to Costa Rica with study abroad, I wasn’t really into birds until the end of the trip and then I really got into birding and really just fell in love with the place.”

Cruz said that it was on that trip that she gained hands on experience with sea turtles, as the group spent couple of nights on a research station and released olive ridley sea turtle hatchlings.

She added that while she loves working with sea turtles, she is “trying to keep my options open and get experience working with other species. I know that I’m interested in coastal environments and studying sea turtles is just kind of what happens naturally,” said Cruz. “But I’m also interested in shore birds and I think a lot of that interest was sparked at UD with ornithology classes.”

Cruz recently accepted a position for the summer as a “Teen Team Facilitator” with the Earthwatch Institute, where she will supervise high school students as they travel on environmental research based expeditions abroad in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico.

“I’m excited for this opportunity because it is similar to the UD study abroad program that sparked my interest in this type of research,” said Cruz. “Additionally, I believe education is a major driver of conservation and am pleased to be able to pass on this similar experience with other students.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Lauren Cruz

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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UD Cooperative Extension aids UD researcher at Delaware Ag Week

February 10, 2014 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Professor Kent Messer and his team of researchers poll farmers at Ag WeekSometimes, an offer can seem too good to be true. The University of Delaware’s Kent Messer was worried that would be the case with his latest research project — one that promised land owners in the state who owned more than 10 acres of land $50 simply for completing a 30-minute survey and offered up to $40,000 worth of funding to support cost share and landowner incentives to help implement nutrient management practices on private property.

Luckily for Messer and his research team, University of Delaware Cooperative Extension — in conjunction with Delaware State University Cooperative Extension and the Delaware Department of Agriculture — was holding Delaware Ag Week in Harrington at the Delaware State Fairgrounds and welcoming around 1,900 visitors, many of them land owners.

“We were able to piggyback on Extension’s work and trust with the farmers,” said Messer, Unidel Howard Cosgrove Chair for the Environment in the Department of Applied Economics and Statistics (APEC). “Our research was more believable because we were at Ag Day.”

“This is an excellent example of outreach and engagement within UD,” said Michelle Rodgers, associate dean for Cooperative Extension in the University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Cooperative Extension is a key partner in the Ag Week event which provided over 97 educational sessions with over 1900 attendees. Students involved in the survey were introduced to Cooperative Extension programming and through the event were able to meet face to face with their desired survey participants. This is was a win-win for the researchers and the research participants.”

Messer’s project is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economics Research Service and at Ag Week, his team conducted a field experiment on nutrient management practices and landowners’ attitudes toward and adoption of those practices.

The USDA project had funding to support cost share and landowner incentives to help implement nutrient management practices on the ground. Messer’s team asked landowners about conservation buffers, areas that are vegetated along streams and ditches either by grass or forest, and asked the landowners how much they would be willing to share the costs of those practices.

Messer singled out Jennifer Volk, extension specialist in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, for helping to identify practices relevant to Delaware for the survey that are not currently available for cost share. “We didn’t want to fund practices that were already supported by state or federal programs; we want to learn about landowners’ attitudes and behavior related to new practices,” said Messer.

Messer said he combined this project with another one of his National Science Foundation (NSF) projects that focuses on the Murderkill Watershed, which has issues surrounding nutrients. If participants had property in the watershed, they were eligible for an extra $25 for taking the survey.

Survey team members included Walker Jones, a master’s degree student in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), Maik Kacinski, a postdoctoral researcher in APEC, Linda Grand and Seth Olson, both seniors in the Department of Applied Economics and Statistics, and Michael Griner, a student from Delaware Technical Community College.

The research team set up shop in Harrington for four days during Ag Week. With four and sometimes six tablet computers available for survey participants, the team members set up through each day of Ag Week and was able to attract 80 people to participate in the survey, which Messer called a “home run.”

“One of the reasons I love Ag week is that it helped ensure our validity. Our booth had a bright blue University of Delaware sign on it. We were in a UD event. Because, in many cases, you could say that this was a too good to be true offer — $50 for a 30-minute survey. We’ll pay up to $40,000 for you to do nutrient management on your land. Most people will see that survey and throw it in the trash because they think there must be a catch.”

Messer said that he was very happy to be able to conduct his research survey at a Cooperative Extension event.

“I’m fundamentally committed to good research that has Extension components. I think that’s a wonderful pillar of the land grant and these are exciting opportunities to collaborate. This is a time when the Extension efforts helped the research project,” said Messer. “We wouldn’t have been successful without having Extension do what it does and having this program that is servicing the landowners. And we were really just able to take advantage of it and participate in it.”

The next steps for Messer and his team include collecting data via mail from participants who were not at Ag Week and finalizing the results of the study.

Article by Adam Thomas

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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