Posts tagged ‘duke university’

June 12, 2011

Where The Turtles Are

SWOT's Award winning green turtle nesting map, Photo: Courtesy of SWOT

I don’t have to look very far during the Florida summer to find sea turtles, they’re quite literally in my backyard. However, coverage of nest sites on the beaches is far less homogenous than one might think.  If you were to start off a beach walk in Jacksonville and round the whole peninsula all the way to Panama City in the Gulf of Mexico-side panhandle, you wouldn’t find an average coverage of nest sites neatly placed every few feet.  While several species nest in the state – notably green, loggerhead, leatherback – not all species will nest in all areas and even across species there are certain key beaches that are high traffic, while a mile north or south has barely any activity at all.

So where are the turtles, and just how do we know where to look for them, year after year?  Luckily, sea turtles tend to be very faithful to their natal beaches.  Volunteers, researchers, and average Joes record the spots and learn their favorites but it takes years to establish a database large enough to convincingly display where a certain species prefers to incubate their little ones.

Imagine then, what an immense, time-consuming, and data-intensive project it must be to launch a world-wide scavenger hunt to find the active nesting beaches for one species, the green (Chelonia mydas).  Oh, and it just happens to have the widest distribution of hatching spots.

That’s exactly the task researchers like Andrew DiMatteo of the State of the World’s Turtles Project (SWOT) and Duke University – along with volunteers, partners, and contributors – have undertaken over the past seven years.   Hundreds of people tracked green turtles through aerial and boat surveys, and even on land by foot or horse hoof.

One of their final products is an elegant world map in GIS format highlighting green turtle nesting traffic.  The map is part of the recently published SWOT Report – The State of the World’s Turtles Vol. 6, and won the International Conservation Mapping Competition.  All the winners were announced in the June issue of Conservation Magazine.

The map highlights three beaches as major sites: Raine Island, Australia, Tortuguero, Costa Rica, and Poilão, Guinea-Bissau. While I’m a bit sad Florida didn’t make the cut, I’m sure we fair better with the loggerhead counts.   (In fact, from their own data, I can report Brevard county alone had 21,242 clutches of loggerhead eggs in 2008!)

Green turtle hatchling in Guyana, Photo: Roderic B Mast / SWOT

SWOT itself is a collaboration of over 550 partners along with Conservation International, the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group (MTSG) and Duke University.   Their website and reports are an enormous resource and well worth taking the time to explore on a Sunday afternoon.  And if you want to go for super-marine-geek level, you can even interact with their full database hosted over on the Duke University servers.

All of this data would not be possible without a breathtakingly collaborative approach to science and thousands of hours of volunteer work.  This is a shining example of the things we as researchers, conservationists, educators, and interested everyday folks, can accomplish when we use our combined talents to synthesize information in ways that make immediate intelligent sense to the public.  (Not to mention highlight areas where conservation measures can make a dramatic positive impact since density of the species is so high.)