The observant among you may have noticed I’ve been a bit quiet over the last month. The students among you will know why!
May, aka the month from hell, is when deadlines and exams collide to make life very very hard. This month I had four essay exams to prepare for and three 1500-2000-word assignments to bash out. The life of a student looks pretty relaxing, especially a Marine Biology student who seems to spend all of her time playing in rockpools and sitting on the beach, however it it’s not as peachy as it seems.
BUT the 18thMay marked the end of my exams *hoorahhh*, but not the end of my second year *boooo*.
One can’t complain however, when the last week of my second year involves spending a week in gorgeous Pembrokeshire, watching dolphins and doing even MORE rockpooling – win! I will be blogging, vlogging, tweeting a generally being a nuisance on social media, sharing videos and photos of what the #ExeterMarine students will be getting up to all of next week – so look out for that!
Today marks the day when I need to actually start packing for my turtle adventure, but what do you even pack for 4 months of turtle action? And how do you prepare?
It’s not as exciting as it seems, first of all, it involves risk assessments and ethical approvals. This is the hidden, less glamourous side of working with animals, but I would argue the most important!
You can’t just march up to a turtle and do what you like… and ethical approvals are there to protect the animals our research is aiming to conserve.
What is my research, anyway? I have been banging on about how fun and rewarding working with these animals is, but there is a serious side! With coastal development increasing and sea levels rising, sea turtle rookeries are being squeezed, and they have less and less space to nest every single year.
I wondered, while sat in the pitch dark, watching a green turtle attempt to nest after digging 6 body pits, 4 egg chambers and roaming through the dunes for a solid 4 hours, "how do turtles choose where exactly on the beach they want to lay their clutch? Do they have set criteria? Do particular females prefer particular locations? Do they actually think about it at all, or are they just wandering around in the dark at random?" . Sometimes, when observing a female, you think “there really can’t be any logic here, what is she doing?!”. This is where science could hold the answers!
My study is looking at the effect of nest site selection on hatch success of Green Turtles, with the aim being to identify the factors that may contribute to nest failure and if it is advantageous, and hence selected for, for green turtles to nest further away from the high-water mark. This could all contribute to understanding and predicting how coastal squeeze might affect turtle populations in the future (I hope). For this I am identifying the mothers of each clutch and measuring the abiotic (non-living) factors that the eggs experience during incubation – as well as, of course, measuring how many beautiful babies survived to make it to sea upon hatching.
Very science-y indeed.
Now for this, I have to be a bit invasive in my study, and this is where ethical approval comes in. For my research, I have put measures in place, as well as carefully considered experimental design and data collection techniques to reduce as much as possible the disturbance to these majestic creatures and their babies. This has all been approved by the ethical committee of the University of Exeter (yaay), so now I can start serious prep for my trip.
So, what’s in my rucksack?
RED HEAD TORCH
Quite possibly THE most important thing to have when working with nesting turtles. Turtles are super sensitive to white light, so we only use red light when working them, and even then, only when absolutely necessary. Hatchlings also use the moonlight to navigate to the sea at night, so any white light interference results in hatchlings getting super confused on the beach and heading in the wrong direction! Ideally you want your eyes to adjust to the darkness, so you don’t need light. It’s a good job I like carrots.
Stating the obvious here, it’s bloody hot in Cyprus. I need say no more.
These little gadgets are what I will be using to measure the temperature that the eggs incubate at. I place the device in the eggs when the mother is laying her clutch, and it records the temperature they experience all the way though incubation. Why would I want to know temperature? Well, a cool thing about turtles is they have temperature-dependant sex determination, which is a fancy way of saying the temperature affects if an embryo will become a boy or a girl. The hotter the eggs, the more females there will be and the cooler the eggs, the more males there will be. This rings alarm bells, with climate change, sand temperatures are increasing, and the more females there are likely to be – reducing the gene pool of fathers and the overall survival of marine turtles in the future! Scary stuff!
PIT TAG SCANNERS
This is how we identify a turtle mamma when she comes up to nest, turtles who have been up to nest before will have been fitted with a little microchip, like used on cats and dogs. By scanning for this microchip when the turtle comes up to nest, we can identify who she is, and monitor her nesting activities over many years. This is how I’ll be able to tell who is the mum of each clutch, and how I’ll be able to find out through my research if certain mums have favourite spots they stick to during a nesting season.
My study site is a 3km long stretch of beach, with five individual bays separated by rocky outcrops. As you can imagine, at night it’s not very safe to cross these bays, so when a team is stationed on a bay, its best they stay there until dawn. This is where radios are really handy, the volunteer or staff member put in charge of the beach during the night (aka the Beach Boss, yes this is what they are called) are ultimately in charge of keeping tabs of how many turtles are on the beach at any one time, roughly where they are and assigning people to work with these turtles if and when they start to lay. As you can imagine, radio contact is pretty crucial to make sure no turtles get missed and the bays are walked regularly!
MY FIELD BOOK
Last but not least, my field book - this is the gem that inspired my research project, last year I took this book out and noted all of the things I noticed when watching the nesting females – I also noted the tagging protocols, detailed methods for working with marine turtles and some sketches of the species and their nesting ecology! This book goes with me everywhere, and I can’t wait to fill it back to front with various sciency-scribblings.
As you can imagine, there are also lots of other things in my rucksack, among them are less notable things like mosquito repellent and many pairs of sandals – so I won’t bore you with those details.
Things I hope to achieve in my four months:
Getting my data for my dissertation! (this is a really important one)
Blogging and vlogging about the world’s plastic problem that is plaguing Cyprus and its turtles
Having a pretty awesome time
Please do SUBSCRIBE and lookout for my videos, tweets (@MarineBioJade) and blogs that will be following over the next four months - there will be some exciting stuff popping up that you won’t want to miss!