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.


New roommates take a trip to Trinidad to study sea turtles

October 17, 2011 under CANR News

Getting to know a new roommate can be tricky. Some people like to call and talk to their new roommate to get to know them a little bit, some even like to hang out before moving in together, and some, like University of Delaware students Stephanie Principati and Racine Boyle, opt to take a trip together to Trinidad to monitor sea turtles.

Principati, a senior pre-veterinary major and animal conservation minor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and an Honors Program student, explained that the two students met through mutual friends and that “being forced to live together for 12 days was a good way to get to know each other.”

Boyle, a professional and continuing studies student, added, “It was actually a really good start to our roommate experience.”

Volunteering for Nature Seekers, a non-profit animal conservation group based in Matura, Trinidad, the two spent 12 days on the beaches studying leatherback sea turtles.

During those 12 days, they helped track the creatures by tagging nesting turtles, giving them a flipper tag and a muscular tag that they injected. For those turtles that were already tagged, they took a GPS location of their nesting site.

Principati said that since Nature Seekers volunteers started tracking the sea turtles, they have seen the same turtles coming back to the same location to nest.

The UD students also measured the length and width of the turtles’ shells and recorded any scars or injuries. Boyle also said that if a turtle had been injured in any way and was unable to dig its own nesting site, a member of the team would be on hand to “help injured sea turtles dig out their nests, which they couldn’t have done on their own.”

It is ideal to tag and measure the 800-pound turtles as they lay their eggs, Principati explained, because the behemoths “go into a trance” when they are giving birth and are thus available to be tagged and measured.

Another part of their work was to wait five minutes after the newborn turtles hatched and then dig up the nests to look for any stragglers that got left behind in the bedlam that ensues as 100 baby sea turtles race for the ocean.

They would also follow any baby turtle tracks they found on the beach to look for nests that might still contain the little ones. Principati said that sometimes the baby turtles on the bottom of the nest get stuck and so the students would dig around and try to find any that got left behind and help them make it to the sea.

The students estimated that they found two or three turtles that got left behind each time and, overall, they said that they tagged about 15 turtles and dug about eight nests each night, working from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Principati said the first night they were on duty, “We got lucky — we just happened to walk on the beach when one of the nests was erupting so all of a sudden there’s turtles coming out of the sand.”

Making sure that all the turtles make it to the water safely is critical for helping out the endangered species. Principati explained that the turtles are endangered in large part due to overfishing — adult sea turtles provide a lot of meat and turtle eggs are considered a delicacy.

Overfishing is not the only way humans are adversely affecting these creatures, however, as Boyle said they witnessed first hand a turtle that had been run over by a boat’s propeller. “Its shell was very mutilated and it was a really deep wound. It was so sad.”

But humans aren’t the only threat to the turtles. Stray dogs will run on the beach and dig up the baby turtles nest and eat them, and vultures will try to eat the baby turtles as they are crawling toward the sea. Once they get to the sea, the turtles also have to look out for sharks, which also pose a threat to their survival.

All of these threats make it critical to save as many turtles as possible for the survival of the species, and it makes groups like Nature Seekers and volunteers like Principati and Boyle all the more important.

The two said that they had a great time on their trip, both by working during the night and seeing soccer games and visiting waterfalls and local villages on their down time during the day, and they would recommend the trip and the group to anyone interested.

Said Boyle of the trip, “Every day we were there, we were like, ‘this is the best thing we’ve ever done.’ We did not want to leave. We could’ve stayed there for another month. Everything about it was perfect and Stephanie was the best person to go with.”

Principati echoed that sentiment saying, “It was really nice. One night, we were just laying on the beach, waiting for this turtle to lay her eggs and we were like, ‘alright, we’re laying on a beach, in Trinidad, at 2 in the morning — this is pretty cool.’ It was the perfect trip.”

Article by Adam Thomas

This story can also be viewed on UDaily > >