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.


CANR alumna reflects on introduction to agriculture, Maryland post

January 27, 2014 under CANR News

Mary Ellen Setting CANR alum serves as Maryland Deputy SecretaryWhen Mary Ellen Setting attended the University of Delaware, she never envisioned herself as one day serving as the deputy secretary of agriculture for the state of Maryland.

In fact, before coming to UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), Setting — who grew up in the city in downtown Wilmington — had very little interaction with agriculture at all.

Now, after a little over 36 years working at the state of Maryland’s Department of Agriculture, Setting has learned a thing or two about the subject.

Setting said her initial introduction to agriculture came as a youth, when she and her mother would travel to the King Street Farmers Market and interact with the farmers there. A farmer would deliver fresh eggs and fruit and vegetables to her house, and that same farmer would take his customers out to his farm as a sort of customer appreciation day.

But other than that, Setting had very little background in the field when she chose to study entomology at UD.

“Coming to the University of Delaware in the entomology department, that’s really where I got my main introduction to agriculture,” said Setting, who majored in entomology and applied ecology, learning things like wildlife management and ornithology along the way.

After working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., doing pesticide registration, Setting was hired as an entomologist trainee at the Maryland Department of Agriculture in 1977.

She went on to be promoted to section chief for the pesticide regulation section in 1988, and served as the first woman president of the Association of American Pesticide Control Officials in 1994 before becoming the assistant secretary of plant industries and pest management for the agency in 2004.

Setting was appointed deputy secretary in 2009.

The job entails being directly accountable for the day-to-day operations of the department and providing leadership to upper level managers as well as all of the department’s 400 employees.

Setting said she is also “responsible for setting policy, determining procedures and more or less guiding the direction of our programs and the activities here at the department.”

Setting said her job does not have a set day-to-day routine, and that while one day she could be testifying before the Maryland General Assembly on legislation that affects either the department’s programs or agriculture, she could also be participating in a commodity conference, going to a trade show for the nursery industry, or heading out on the ice cream trail to promote the state’s dairies.

Of all her job requirements, however, Setting said that her favorite is meeting and working with farmers. “We’ve got very knowledgeable and innovative farmers here in Maryland,” she said, adding, “They’re always looking for new angles, new ways to add value to their production.”

Setting added that getting to know the farmers and learning from them, as well as learning about their operations, has been an important experience in her work for the state. “I’ve had several farmers that have taken me under their wing over the years and showed me how to treat the farming industry, how to regulate them, and how to get cooperation from them. So I’ve had a lot of folks over the years help me along the way.”

Setting, who joined the Maryland Department of Agriculture at the age of 24, said she has grown up in the department and enjoys that the people she works with “share the enthusiasm that I have for agriculture. They work very hard at it. They work hard for farmers and I’ve been fortunate to have the relationships I’ve had, not only with my co-workers but with the folks outside of this department, the whole industry. I feel very blessed that I’ve had these opportunities.”

As for advice for current CANR students, Setting said that agriculture is a wonderful field to get into, one that is important not only for the individual but for the country as a whole. “Having the opportunity to be in that field is pretty exciting and students should take advantage of that and focus on what interests them but not be afraid to go outside of their comfort zones and look into new areas because you just never know where that will take you,” Setting said.

She also encouraged students to build on the relationships they gain from being in the field.

Article by Adam Thomas

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.


CANR alum hikes “Long Trail” for a cause

November 19, 2013 under CANR News

Matt Grasso treks long trail for a causeMatthew Grasso, a 2013 wildlife conservation graduate from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), embarked on an 80-mile “Trek for Cancer” this fall in order to raise awareness and funds for pancreatic cancer research and the Lustgarten Foundation. Accompanying him on the excursion was Erin Cordiner, a fellow University of Delaware graduate and organizational and community leadership major.

“For me it originated as just a mental and physical challenge I wanted to experience. Then I become more passionate about raising money afterwards,” said Grasso. “For Erin it was more geared towards raising money. Her grandmother died of pancreatic cancer and so it was originally her idea to start collecting donations.”

The nine-day hike, which ran from September 29-October 7, began at Pine Cobble trail in Williamstown, Massachusetts and took Grasso and Cordiner up through Vermont, bypassing many towns along the way including Stamford, Bennington, Stratton, and Manchester Center.

Grasso described his journey with Cordiner as being truly incredible and the result of a shared love for the outdoors and a passion for helping others in need.

“Not only were the sites and fall foliage breathtaking, but we learned a ton about ourselves, each other and the mental and physical challenges of backpacking,” said Grasso. “We also had the pleasure of meeting a bunch of unforgettable fun and quirky people.”

Grasso said that a typical day on the hike began by waking at first light, quickly making breakfast consisting of oatmeal and tea, and then setting off with 34-38 pound packs through sunshine or rain. “Even though we had rainproof gear, the rain still finds a way into your backpack, jacket and shoes,” he said.

The hike had the pair traversing over and through boulders, beaver dams, bogs, streams, and rugged peaks, although they always took time to stop and enjoy lookout points over the mountains. Dinner involved macaroni and cheese, ramen, or stuffing. “We were lucky enough to have fun people hiking the same way as us with whom we could talk and joke around with during dinner,” said Grasso.

Grasso said he and Cordiner had planned to complete the entire trail, which encompasses 273 miles, but after Cordiner received a marketing and public relations position in Manhattan, they had to cut the trip short.

“I considered finishing the trail by myself, but realized this was something we started together and thus had to end together. It simply wouldn’t have felt right going on without her,” said Grasso. The pair plans to complete the full trail in the near future. For more information, contact Grasso at matthewPgrasso@gmail.com or Cordiner at cordinererin@gmail.com.

For now, Grasso is working with an arborist as well as aiding William Macaluso, a master’s level student in CANR, to reintroduce Northern Bobwhite quail to Long Island until he and Cordiner decide to re-embark and finish their journey.

Article by Angela Carcione


Landscape consultant to discuss ‘Design for the Nature of Today’s Garden’

March 27, 2012 under CANR News

The nature of gardening today is much different than it was a generation ago. More households have two working parents who have less time and inclination to prune regularly and pull every errant weed. Money is tighter, too, not only for most households but for most municipalities.

Homeowners can’t spend a lot on chemical fertilizers and herbicides or new trees and shrubs. Likewise, local and state governments can’t devote much money or time to maintaining parks and natural areas.

Rick Darke doesn’t see anything bleak in this picture; rather he chooses to focus on the opportunities that exist in contemporary gardening.

“There has never been a more interesting or exciting time to be involved in the design of outdoor spaces,” says Darke, a University of Delaware alumnus who heads a Pennsylvania-based landscape consulting firm. His books include The American Woodland Garden and The Wild Garden: Expanded Edition. 

“There has been a sea change in how we approach our green spaces,” adds Darke. “This new trend embraces the dynamic nature of living landscapes and identifies conservation, functionality and viability as primary goals.”

Darke will talk about “Design for the Nature of Today’s Garden” on Tuesday, April 10, at UD’s Townsend Hall. Sponsored by the UD Botanic Gardens, the lecture is a kick-off event for the gardens’ spring plant sale, which is open to the public April 27-28.

Darke, who with his wife, Melinda Zoehrer, gardens on 1.5 acres in Landenberg, Pa., points to his own yard to illustrate how his approach to landscape design and stewardship has evolved over the years.

For example, he has become better at choosing the “right plant for the right place.” A dozen or so years ago, he planted native sweet bay magnolias in his back yard, which adjoins the White Clay Creek Preserve. Deer from the preserve quickly discovered these magnolias and rubbed the fragrant bark to the point that the trees wouldn’t have survived another season. Darke transplanted the magnolias to the front yard, which the deer tend to avoid. Although he solved his problem, he wasted valuable time.

“Melinda and I are busy with work, travel and socializing,” says Darke. “We don’t have endless time to devote to the garden.”

These days, he carefully considers site selection. A smart choice, in his opinion, was a stand of tall, warm-season grasses that he placed on the edge of the property. The grasses serve as a privacy screen while also providing habitat for wildlife.

To save both time and money, Darke lets the wind, water, birds and animals dictate — through seed dispersal — what new plants get added to his yard. He still buys plants but more often he enjoys these seedlings that arrive spontaneously.

“We have a group of nearly 30-foot-tall beeches that originated as seedlings 13 or 14 years ago,” notes Darke. “People don’t realize how fast a seedling can grow. In six years, a beech seedling can become a 12-foot-tall tree.”

Of course, you might not be thrilled with where the wind dropped your new beech tree — perhaps it’s growing between flagstone pavers or in front of your prized red-twig dogwood. That’s where judicious editing comes in, notes Darke. Feel free to transplant seedlings to different locations in your yard and to give away excess seedlings.

In the Darke and Zoehrer yard, the long list of “free plants” acquired by seed dispersal or self-seeding and sporing include viburnum, beech, sassafras, oaks, silver bells, spicebush, asters, ferns and dogwood.

The economic benefits of utilizing existing vegetation are even greater on large tracts of land. Currently, Darke is consulting on a project that will convert a Pittsburgh brownfield and abandoned steel mill, Carrie Furnace, into a mixed-use residential and commercial development.

“This 400-acre property has thousands of self-sown native sycamores and cottonwood,” notes Darke. “Any one of these 20- to 50-foot trees would cost more than $1,000 to buy. The most environmental approach is to allow these trees and other existing plants to form the backbone of the site’s new landscape.”

UD Botanic Gardens lecture

Darke’s lecture will be held at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 10.  The cost is $15 for the public, $10 for members of the UD Botanic Gardens. For more info go to the UD Botanic Gardens website or call 831-0153.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photos by Rick Darke

This article can also be viewed on UDaily