COSM

2015 Georgia Southern Sea Turtle Program

GS Sea Turtle Program at SCI Summer 2015

The 2015 Georgia Southern Sea Turtle Program at SCI class and staff on North Beach of St. Catherines Island (minus photographer Fred Rich)

During the summer of 2015, fourteen enthusiastic Georgia Southern undergraduates participated in an important and record breaking year for loggerhead sea turtle conservation efforts on Georgia beaches.  These biology, geology and geography majors were enrolled in a B-Term course package (Sea Turtle Natural History and Barrier Island Environmental Geology), offered by the Department of Geology and Geography, that includes ten days of field work during residence on St. Catherines Island, Georgia.  The course package integrates multiple science disciplines in a format that includes place-based learning, civic engagement and service learning, and extended contact hours to produce a unique learning experience.

Class Training

Class training session run on a Jekyll Island beach by DNR biologist Mark Dodd.

The course began on July 9 and 10 with four hours of class room preparation at Georgia Southern learning about field safety, working conditions, sea turtle biology and ecology, causes of their endangered status and conservation efforts.  An additional four hours was spent on application of fundamental geologic principles to crawlway and nest interpretation, coastal geology in general and Georgia barrier island geology.  On July 14 the students met at a beach on Jekyll Island for a training session by GA DNR biologist Mark Dodd, the coordinator for Georgia sea turtle conservation efforts.  Training addressed the recognition of species by crawlway characteristics, nest structure, location of egg chambers, relocation protocols and post-emergence inventory of nests that have hatched.  After the training session the class toured the Georgia Sea Turtle Center before heading to the SCI dock to load groceries and personal gear for the 10 day class on three boats for the 20 minute ride to St. Catherines Island (SCI).  The students stocked the kitchen, unloaded their personal gear in their assigned cabins and headed to the beach for an additional training demonstration on two loggerhead nests on North Beach.

Students Documenting Loggerhead Crawlway

Students documenting a loggerhead crawlway and checking for a nest. The 4-seat ATV shown, is one of two purchased by Georgia Southern to support the courses and program.

The daily routine consists of groups of three to four students and an experienced mentor departing the compound at 5:00 a.m. each morning and heading to assigned segments of the 17 kms of SCI beach to work as conservation scientists.  The beaches must be monitored daily for sea turtle nesting activity and all crawlways must be documented and coordinates recorded by GPS.  If nesting has taken place, the egg chamber must be located and one egg taken for an on-going mitochondrial DNA marking program.  Students must determine if the nest is likely to survive the 55-65 day incubation period or if it is doomed due to location below the spring high tide line, or by being situated in an erosional portion of beach. Approximately 60% of the nests require relocation to safe spots and the students must carefully remove and count the eggs, dig a new egg chamber, place marker stakes at the original site and the relocation site, record coordinates of each, and place protective screens over the active nest site.  All information is recorded in individual field journals.  An evening group debriefing session is used to collect and collate the monitoring data from all the field groups prior to uploading into the seaturtle.org data base used by DNR.

Between the morning conservation work and the evening debriefing, the schedule is somewhat fluid, depending on field conditions and guest speaker schedules.  This time is used for lectures from staff and guests, field trips, assembling a required paper on sea turtle conservation (with personal documentation),  collecting field data for small research projects (Barrier Island Environmental Geology course), and exploring the island. Students in the Barrier Island Environmental Geology course worked in pairs as research teams exploring variation in water tables and groundwater salinity, exploring heavy mineral sand concentration through radioactivity levels, conducting an inventory of tidal pool fauna, documenting variation in fauna and primary sedimentary features from shore to tidal flat, and conducting a survey of gopher tortoise burrow orientation and inclination. Students presented their findings in presentations near the end of the week and prepared a short report.

Lectures on Shoreline Dynamics of SCI

Dr. Brian Meyer (right), a Georgia Southern alumnus, lectures on shoreline dynamics of SCI.

Guest speakers and field participants included Georgia Southern alumnus Dr. Brian Meyer from Georgia State (SCI shoreline evolution and erosion – natural and anthropogenic factors), Dr. Brian Shamblin from UGA (use of mDNA marking in sea turtle conservation and research), and Dr. Chris Mowry from Berry College (coyote natural history, ecology, discussion of impact on SCI) and SCI Program Director Royce Hayes (historical and ecological lecture and tour).  Drs. Gale Bishop, Kelly Vance and Fred Rich provided additional lectures in the meeting room and on-site in the field on subjects including sea turtle biology and ecology, SCI geologic and hydrologic evolution, salt water intrusion, coastal wetlands, horseshoe crab ecology, and geologic processes driving barrier island evolution. An experienced program staff including Jaynie Gaskin (Geology and Geography staff), Michael Sams (program field assistant) and Berry College summer interns Lauren Patterson and Mattie Whitesell provided additional mentoring, safety oversight and logistical support during the course, and support the daily May through September monitoring work required by the GA DNR in order to offer this program.

Rich and Students with Hatchlings

Dr. Rich and students recovered ~ 30 hatchlings that went over the wrong side of the dune as they emerged from a dune crest nest. Hatchlings were released immediately.

This group of students had an extraordinary experience due to the intensity of loggerhead nesting activity in 2015.  The students witnessed an emergence of hatchlings the first morning on the beach and rounded up hatchlings that went over the wrong side of the dune.

Student with Hatchling

A delighted Sophia Braun watches a loggerhead hatchling heading to the sea. Photograph courtesy of Sophia Braun.

The students also witnessed hatchlings crossing the beach to the sea during a late emergence and released straggler hatchlings during nest inventories.  Another group helped rescue an adult female loggerhead that went over the wrong side of the dune on Southwest beach and became disoriented and exhausted.  Daily excursions for monitoring and research provided exciting encounters with both exotic (lemurs) and indigenous island wildlife.  Before the end of the week, the students celebrated their role in the breaking of the previous SCI record of 193 loggerhead nests.  As of August 22, SCI had 208 nests containing ~ 20,000 eggs.  The mitochondrial DNA tagging by Dr. Shamblin and co-workers at UGA is incomplete at this time, but indicates 60 females contributed to SCI nests.  The 118 nests that have already completed incubation have produced >8,900 hatchlings – an important contribution to the threatened Northwest Atlantic population segment of loggerhead sea turtles.  Our students also participated in conservation efforts during a record breaking nesting year for the entire state, with over 2,330 nests according to Mark Dodd (GA DNR).

Female Loggerhead

Students and interns watch a female loggerhead return to the sea after assisting and guiding her up and over a dune and toward the sea after she became disoriented and exhausted on the landward side of the dune.

This course package and the unique learning experience it provides is the evolutionary product of a course program initiated by Gale Bishop (Georgia Southern Professor Emeritus) and Nancy Marsh (GA public school teacher, now retired) over 25 years ago to teach science methods to Georgia K-12 school teachers with the support of the Improving Teacher Quality Program.  The course is now offered as a package for undergraduates, but can also be taken for graduate credit.  The working partnership between the St. Catherines Island Foundation, the Georgia Southern University College of Science and Mathematics (COSM), Terry Norton and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, and the GA DNR has made this special learning opportunity possible for our students. The five months of required daily monitoring work have been supported by generous donations from David Smith and family, the Nunn Family Foundation, the Thrivent Financial Group, individual donors to our program foundation account (0961), a grant from the M.K. Pentecost Ecology Fund, and logistical and infrastructure support from the SCI Foundation and the Georgia Southern College of Science and Mathematics (COSM).  Course enrollment is by permission, and students interested in the 2016 course should contact Dr. Vance (rkvance@georgiasouthern.edu) ASAP, as the roster fills quickly and SCI housing and logistics limit enrollment to 18.

Alligator on St. Catherines Island

An approximately 7 foot long alligator provides excitement on the way back from the beach, lunging at the ATV as we passed.

Hatchling Crawl Away

Mason Graham examines the tiny hatchling crawlaways extending from an emergence crater in Nest 13 to the tide line.

 

Sunset St. Catherines Island

Students take a moment to photograph the sunrise from South Beach and watch the sharks and dolphins catching fish near shore.

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Sea Turtle Program at St. Catherines Island • (912) 478-1744 • jgaskin@georgiasouthern.edu