PeerJ Award Winners at ISTS42

by | May 13, 2024 | Award Winner Interviews, Uncategorized

The International Sea Turtle Society (ISTS) is the premier organization related to sea turtle research and conservation issues around the world. Among its many members, the Society claims world-renown sea turtle researchers, local community conservation organizations, members of governments, students, grass-roots non-governmental organizations, and many, many sea turtle enthusiasts. Each year for the past 42 season, the ISTS has hosted the International Sea Turtle Symposium in the location of the current President’s choosing. This provides opportunities for the Symposium to be held around the world, bringing prestige to the host country, and highlighting the regions challenges and triumphs in relation to sea turtle conservation and research. In March, 2024, under the direction and organization of Dr. Stephen G. Dunbar, with a large team of international committee members and volunteers, the International Sea Turtle Symposium was held in the city of Pattaya, Thailand. A highlight of the event was the attendance of Mr. Jatuporn Buruspat, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and Representative of the Royal Family of Thailand, as well as the Director Generals for the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, the Department of National Parks, and the Royal Thai Navy, and the Mayor of Pattaya City, Mr. Poramet Ngampichet, at the high-day Opening Ceremonies of the Symposium on March 26. The conference spanned March 24 – 29, and began with a series of 15 topic workshops, then a day of eight regional meetings highlighting research, policy, and conservation from around the globe. Throughout the remaining days of the Symposium, 11 topic sessions facilitated 328 oral and poster presentations, of which 114 were student presentations. Almost 700 people attended the Symposium from at least 49 countries. At the close of the Symposium, Dr. Dunbar passed the Presidential responsibilities on to Dr. Andrews Agyekumhene, who will host the Symposium in Ghana in 2025.

You can read more about the Awards given at ISTS42 on the website: https://www.ists42thailand.org/program/awards/

Stephen G. Dunbar, ISTS Past President

 

Emily Turla PhD candidate and Laboratory Coordinator at Florida Atlantic University, USA.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

After receiving my Bachelor’s degree I spent several years working in the industry before starting my PhD. I’ve been working with sea turtles for 7 years in different capacities (rehabilitation, husbandry, nesting, lab research), which helped narrow down what I was interested in studying once I decided on going to graduate school. I wanted to try something I had not done before! My research focuses on understanding what leads to egg failure in leatherback sea turtles. I am particularly interested in leatherbacks since globally, on average, only half of all of the leatherback eggs that are laid actually hatch. This is a lower success rate than the other 6 species of sea turtles. To better understand egg failure, I am investigating things such as: (a) when during the developmental process embryos fail, (b) rates of infertility, and (c) the role of temperature and moisture on developmental success.

What first interested you in this field of research?

One way to study sea turtle nests is to count the contents after the nests hatch to see what is left over (e.g., hatched shells, unhatched eggs, hatchlings). I saw a lot of potential in studying the unhatched eggs that are typically just disposed of after we count them during these nest examinations. I specifically became interested in leatherback sea turtles because they have the lowest hatching success (# of eggs that hatch out of the total # of eggs that are laid) of all of the 7 species of sea turtles. All leatherback populations are classified as endangered, while some are critically endangered and are at risk of extinction. I want to understand what is causing this low hatching success, which can inform conservation decisions regarding leatherback sea turtles locally and globally.

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at ISTS42?

My oral presentation was on using fluorescent microscopy to assess the fertility of sea turtle eggs that look infertile upon macroscopic investigation. In the few other studies that have examined fertility in sea turtle eggs, less precise (but still informative!) methods are used. I described these techniques and the need for a more precise method to evaluate fertility. Then, I described the fluorescent microscopy method that I utilized and the results of a study I conducted using this technique. This study analyzed fertility rates in leatherback sea turtle eggs in Southeast Florida, USA. Previously, we did not have an understanding of the fertility rates of leatherback eggs in this region, but in this study, I found that 98% of eggs were fertile in the subset of leatherback eggs that I sampled. These results suggest that infertility does not play a major role in leatherback sea turtle egg failure in this population, which is extremely informative. This talk introduced a new method of fertility assessment that had not yet been used in sea turtles but proved to be successful and more precise.

How will you continue to build on this research?

I will repeat the same fertility project this upcoming nesting season using eggs from different female leatherbacks than those I sampled from last season. Further, using leatherback eggs incubated in both ex-situ and in-situ conditions, I will start to analyze data that I have collected over the past few years to investigate other causes of egg failure such as the influences of temperature and moisture during incubation.

 

Anna Ortega PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia, Australia. Co-funded by Upwell Turtles.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I grew up in Michigan, surrounded by lakes filled with snapping turtles. From age six, I was catching those turtles before breakfast to study them in “observation tanks”, aka: my mother’s cookware. Though I’ve gotten a bit more professional in my methods, that curiosity has taken me all over the world: from teaching marine science off a boat in the Caribbean, to helping at a rescue center for injured turtles in Greece, to Australia where I am now doing my PhD. Through these amazing opportunities, I realized that I am most passionate about conservation – using my research to understand how best to protect threatened species.

What first interested you in this field of research?

I didn’t see the ocean until I was nine, but my love for it was instant – all it took was a mask and a snorkel, and suddenly my whole world became an observation tank. I began learning everything I could about the ocean, and to my surprise, I learned that this massive, magical underwater landscape was not untouchable. But as I learned about the negative impact of humans on the marine environment, I also learned about the many inspirational people who have dedicated their lives to understand and counteract that impact. I wanted to be one of those people.

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at ISTS42?

My PhD research is focused on the Pacific leatherbacks – two Critically Endangered sea turtle populations that are predicted to be extirpated (go locally extinct) within my lifetime. My goal is to inform conservation management for these populations by increasing knowledge about their threats and potential conservation strategies.

This presentation was part of the former goal, expanding what we know about leatherback threats in the Pacific Ocean. We know that a major threat for leatherbacks is getting accidentally caught in fishing gear as bycatch. What we don’t know is how many are caught every year, and more importantly, how many die as a result. I dug into the literature and found data from several sources: case studies, experiments, interviews, logbooks, model estimates, governmental and fishery reports, surveys. These publications captured over 40,000 leatherback interactions with fisheries from 1982-2024 and showed that mortality is not equal – some fisheries are more of a threat to leatherbacks than others.

How will you continue to build on this research?

This chapter is very exciting to me because it will become the most comprehensive estimate of leatherback bycatch in the Pacific that’s ever been done. First, we’re combining our fishery threat scores with accurate predictions of fishing effort using Global Fishing Watch, which provides open-source data on human activity at sea. Then, we’re working with the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) to plan a workshop for experts. They’ll review our estimates of annual leatherback bycatch and provide insights on and confidence around our values. The workshop findings will be used to update the “projected time to extirpation” for each population. At that point, we hope to reassess the conservation management plans for leatherbacks in the Pacific. With the help of numerous collaborators throughout all the stages of this project, we hope to move the Pacific leatherback populations one step closer to recovery.

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