What can you do to help the world’s oceans?

Every year on 8 June, we take a moment to celebrate the ecosystems which cover 71% of our planet’s surface – the oceans. In 2008, the United Nations designated this day as World Oceans Day to raise awareness about issues facing this critical system and what it’s conservation means for our continued prosperity. Among others, the oceans are responsible for:

World Ocean Day illustration
  • Sustaining the biodiversity of fishes, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates, and other marine groups,
  • Regulating our climate by transporting heat from the Equator toward the Poles and absorbing much of our excess carbon dioxide production,
  • Producing much of the air we breathe through photosynthetic algae,
  • Nourishing billions of people (both on the coast and inland),
  • Providing medicinal products including cancer-, Alzheimer’s-, inflammation-, and infection-fighting compounds,
  • Transporting economic goods from bath toys to planes,
  • Supporting coastal economies through tourism and recreation,
  • Promoting spiritual and religious beliefs

If you could put a value to this myriad of ecosystem services the oceans provide to our global society, it would be in the trillions of dollars. Conserving the oceans is not just the right thing to do as good stewards of this blue planet, it is a matter of our social and economic prosperity.

In support of this conservation need, organizations at all levels of government, non-profits, and research organizations are calling for 30% of the world’s intact ecosystems to be protected by 2030. An ambitious goal, but not one that is out-of-reach as approximately 15% of terrestrial and 7% of marine ecosystems currently receive some form of conservation. On 27 January 2021, President Biden issued an executive order placing climate policy at the heart of US domestic and foreign policy, including conserving 30% of US lands and territorial waters by 2030 (https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/).

30 by 30 graphic courtesy of WorldOceanDay.org
30×30 graphic courtesy of WorldOceanDay.org

But you need not wait for 8 June to roll around each year or for 2030 to begin helping to conserve our oceans. With billions of people on this watery world, even small steps taken together can be incredibly impactful. Things you can do today to help ensure a healthy marine environment for us all include:

  1. Visit the ocean! A personal connection to the sea is not only gratifying and therapeutic, it can help put a lot of these “big picture” issues into perspective.
  2. Buy sustainably-harvested seafood. Look for the appropriate labels at your local grocery store or check out apps such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch”.
  3. Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Bring your own reusable storage options and refuse single-use items whenever possible to reduce waste. If you can, recycle or donate items you no longer need.
  4. Choose carbon-free transportation options such as walking or cycling. It’s not only good for the environment, but good for your health as well. If this is not an option, use carbon-reduced options such as public transportation when available.
  5. Reduce your energy usage at home or in your workplace. This could include the use of energy-efficient lighting and appliances, adjusting your thermostat a few degrees warmer or using windows and fans to regulate room temperature, properly insulating your home, or simply turning off or unplugging electrical devices or lights when not in use.
  6. Use less water to reduce wastewater generation, which transports excess nutrients and pollution into local waterways and the oceans.
  7. Demonstrate good ocean stewardship by employing catch-and-release fishing practices, following size and take limits, anchoring vessels away from sensitive habitats such as coral reefs or seagrasses which may be damaged by the anchor itself as well as the chain or line, remaining alert to changes in depth to prevent vessel grounding or prop scarring, and picking up and properly disposing of debris you encounter (even if it is not your own) – particularly during coastal cleanup events (https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/international-coastal-cleanup/)!
  8. Support pro-conservation legislation and political leaders by voting for conservation-minded candidates and voicing opposition to proposed legislation working against ocean-sustainability interests.
  9. Donate your time or resources to an ocean conservation initiative or organization. Many of these efforts, both local and worldwide, are volunteer-based and need our support to be successful.

For more information and to learn about new conservation initiatives, feel free to check out:

Project Update: Wave Exposure of Sea Turtle Nests

Identifying inundation and erosion hot-spots in the Florida Panhandle

Inundation and nest erosion from wave exposure, storm surge, and sea level rise are major threats to sea turtle nests – causing localized mortality of eggs, as well as potential changes in hatchling size, morphology, locomotor function, and sex. Nesting females use several environmental cues such as beach slope, tide height, and distance from the water to reduce the chances of wave exposure. However, waves are still a common problem and increasing storm intensity and coastal modifications (e.g., seawalls and upland construction) only exacerbate the issue. Identifying where and under what conditions wave exposure becomes a problem, and deciding what action to take (if any), is a common issue for sea turtle managers.

Graphical representation of the project workflow from data collection to model execution to final nesting beach rankings.
Graphical representation of the project workflow from data collection to model execution to final nesting beach rankings.

To help managers with this decision, this project used beach elevation data, nest location and productivity data, and wave runup modeling to:

  • 1) identify the reduction in loggerhead sea turtle hatchling production caused by wave exposure, and
  • 2) map out which beaches in the Florida Panhandle represent priority areas for conservation initiatives.
Map of wave exposure along a portion of the St Joseph Peninsula shoreline
Proportion of wave exposure along a stretch of the St Joseph Peninsula shoreline from 2016 to 2019. Loggerhead sea turtle nests laid during this time were typically above the most frequently exposed portions of the beach.

From 2016 to 2019, reported wave exposure affected 42% of loggerhead nesting stretching from the Florida-Alabama state line east to Bald Point State Park – 1,665 nests were washed over and an additional 1,200 nests were either partially or completely washed away. On average, the nests which were washed over produced 46% fewer hatchlings than nests which were otherwise undisturbed. By comparison, predated nests produced 28% fewer hatchlings, on average, than their undisturbed counterparts.

 Number of NestsHatching Success
(%, mean ± SD)
Emergence Success
(%, mean ± SD)
Undisturbed210478.1 ± 29.776.3 ± 30.2
Washed Over166532.7 ± 38.630.5 ± 37.5
Partial Wash-Out79NANA
Complete Wash-Out112100
Hatching and emergence success for undisturbed and wave-exposed nests in the Florida Panhandle from 2016 to 2019. Number of nests and complete and partial wash-outs are derived from the full dataset (n = 6,773). Hatching and emergence success from undisturbed and washed over nests were evaluated from a subset of the available data (n = 2,947). Productivity from partially washed-out nests is impossible to determine without a known clutch size prior to erosion.

The wave runup model had an 89% accuracy when determining the presence or absence of wave exposure during a nest’s 2-month incubation. When mapped across the Florida Panhandle and considering the number of nests laid per beach, the model suggested the following beaches represent the highest priority for conservation initiatives:

  • St Joseph Peninsula State Park
  • St Joseph Peninsula
  • St George Island
  • Cape San Blas
  • Cape St George Island

Together, these 5 beaches represent 60% of the loggerhead nesting in the region. Significant losses from wave exposure on these beaches can dramatically affect hatchling production for the entire Northern Gulf of Mexico loggerhead sea turtle population.

Nesting beach Priority Category (C) based on loggerhead sea turtle nesting frequency (A) and the proportion of nest locations exposed to modeled wave wash-over (B). The choice of conservation initiative will vary based on nesting frequency and wave exposure. For example, beaches with frequent nesting and high wave exposure will need different initiatives than those with low wave exposure (D).

There is still a lot of work to be done. This model is just one step in the larger efforts for sea turtle conservation in the Florida Panhandle and elsewhere. For example, before we can consider any management action or intervention ranging from beach preservation to nest relocation, we need to know:

  • At what frequency or duration of exposure does wave wash-over cause significant harm to developing turtles?
  • Do these exposure thresholds vary with the developmental stage of the embryo?
  • How does this tolerance (or lack thereof) vary across species and populations?
  • What are the benefits of non-lethal levels of wave exposure, including reduced incubation temperatures, increased male hatchling production, large body sizes, and/or faster crawling speeds?
  • Would relocating nests introduce other threats which may cause as much (or greater) impact than wave exposure in their current location, such as hyperthermia, increased female hatchling production in a female-dominant population, desiccation, and increased predation or orientation?
  • How is wave exposure likely to change in the near future due to coastal development, armoring, beach erosion, hurricane frequency and strength, and sea level rise?
  • How may sea turtles naturally adjust their nesting behaviors to combat these changing beach conditions?

Certainly plenty to keep us busy for awhile, so stay tuned for updates from the sea turtle community!

The manuscript for this work was published in the special section “Remote Sensing Applications for Sea Turtle Conservation” in the journal Remote Sensing. Check it out at https://www.mdpi.com/2072-4292/13/14/2654!

For similar work, check out:

Funding Alert! New project investigating sea turtle wave exposure and inundation

A BIG thank you goes out to the Sea Turtle Conservancy (https://www.conserveturtles.org/) for funding one of our latest projects: Investigating loggerhead sea turtle embryonic tolerance to wave exposure and groundwater inundation through Florida State University! Every year, the Sea Turtle Conservancy oversees hundreds of thousands of dollars raised from the sale of the Sea Turtle specialty license plate throughout Florida. These funds are used to support the critical conservation efforts of coastal county governments, educational and research institutions, and rehabilitation organizations. On Tuesday 30 March, the Sea Turtle Conservancy announced the awardees for the 2021-2022 funding cycle – https://www.conserveturtles.org/sea-turtle-grants-program-awards-415000-to-conservation-projects-in-florida/. We are grateful for the opportunity afforded by the Sea Turtle Grants Program and offer our congratulations to the other highly deserving awardees including the Inwater Research Group, University of Florida, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, University of Central Florida, and Mote Marine Lab, among others!

A hatchling Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) en route to the Gulf of Mexico

This new project, Investigating loggerhead sea turtle embryonic tolerance to wave exposure and groundwater inundation, seeks to advance our understanding of a major threat faced by all sea turtle species at all nesting beaches: inundation. Sea turtles eggs are soft and leathery, not hard like a chicken egg. This difference allows water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide to move in and out of the egg as the embryo develops. However, if the nest is submerged under waves, tides, groundwater, or storm surge, or subjected to heavy rainfall, this increased moisture can:

  • drown developing embryos by limiting gas exchange,
  • disrupt the movement of water across the eggshell,
  • reduce incubation temperatures causing changes in hatchling sex ratios,
  • effect embryonic development resulting in alterations to hatchling morphology and fitness

But there is a lot we don’t understand about this threat. Despite its ubiquitous presence at all sea turtle nesting beaches, we don’t yet know at what point inundation becomes a problem or how this threat may be addressed to limit unintended consequences from any particular management decision.

To help answer these questions, this project will take a look at the frequency, duration, severity, and timing of wave exposure and groundwater inundation events during the 2021 nesting season at a major nesting beach in the Florida Panhandle – Saint George Island. A collaboration between the island’s volunteer, citizen science sea turtle monitoring program (https://floridadep.gov/rcp/nerr-apalachicola/content/sea-turtle-monitoring-anerr, https://www.facebook.com/SGI.Volunteer.Turtlers/) and researchers and students from Florida State University, the team will monitor wave wash-over and groundwater inundation using a combination of nesting surveys and HOBO water level loggers to see how they affect nest productivity.

HOBO logger before deployment at a sea turtle nest in Alabama

Check back in to see project updates as we hit the field this summer!

New Paper: Conservation Interventions to Reduce Vessel Strikes on Sea Turtles

HOT OFF THE PRESS! The lab’s latest paper “Conservation interventions to reduce vessel strikes on sea turtles: A case study in Florida” is now available in the journal ‘Marine Policy’! It’s free to download for the next 50 days (until 28 April) at https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1ciU%7E,714MjKTy.

Vessel strikes are a significant threat to sea turtles as impacts with any part of the hull, motor, or propeller can result in serious injury or death for the animal – as well as costly damage to the boat. Given that sea turtles and boaters prefer to occupy similar nearshore locations, there is an unfortunately probability of sea turtle-vessel interactions.

To begin addressing this issue, the Florida State University (FSU) Marine Turtle Research, Ecology, and Conservation Group along with the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) convened a panel of experts to identify possible conservation interventions. These experts came from the sea turtle and marine mammal communities, including managers, researchers, academics, stranding personnel, and law enforcement. After 2 days of discussion, the panel identified 4 general interventions:

  1. Education, outreach, awareness, and communication
  2. Voluntary exclusion and/or go-slow zones
  3. Regulatory exclusion and/or go-slow zones
  4. Vessel modifications

These discussions were used to develop a social survey to take to the boating community. We chose to talk to those in and around the St Lucie Inlet of Florida as this was 1 of 8 “hot spots” for sea turtle vessel strike strandings in the state. A majority of respondents believed that boating impacts wildlife (79%) and that the community would be willing to change their behavior to reduce negative impacts (61%). When given a choice between a theoretical go-slow zone, seasonal area closure, permanent area closure, or vessel actions, the use of go-slow zones was most acceptable to respondents (46%). They also indicated that there would be greater support for conservation interventions if:

  1. The interventions were voluntary, rather than regulated,
  2. Overlapped with existing manatee speed zones or other management areas, and
  3. Were accompanied by educational materials as to the need for, and effectiveness of, the chosen intervention

There is still a lot of work to do in order to bring down the incidence of vessel strikes to sea turtles (as well as other marine animals). This work is just a first step! Additional social surveys are needed at the remaining 7 “hot spots” in Florida to determine what generalities can be drawn to reduce vessel strikes statewide versus site-specific conservation interventions tailored to each “hot spot”. Once acceptable conservation interventions are identified, in-water surveys for sea turtle and vessel distribution are necessary to ensure proper placement and timing of the intervention to provide maximum efficacy. Finally, once the interventions are in place, sustained monitoring will be needed to determine its success or identify any necessary alterations. In particular, lessons learned from the past few decades of marine mammal-vessel strike reduction interventions should be a great stepping stone for sea turtle conservation!

This work was funded by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (Grant #0104.18.058891) with appropriate ethics approvals from both FSU and UNBC. Logistical support was provided by FSU and the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies (COAPS). A deep debt of gratitude is owed to Dr. Elizabeth Bevan for her assistance with the workshop and Alexa Putillo, Taylor Fant, Kelly Soluri, Trevor Hope, Camille Kynoch, Abbey Townsend, Bridget Kinsley, and Dr. Hector Barrios-Garrido for their help related to the social surveys.

Historic cold stun event in Texas

I’m sure many of you have been seeing the news and social media posts about the ongoing events down in Texas related to the winter storm. In addition to millions of citizens without power, heat, or water, the weather has affected the state’s marine life as well. Endangered sea turtles have been collected by the thousands during the largest cold stun event in the state’s history. So many have come in that the majority are currently being housed in the nearby convention center after the South Padre Island rehabilitation center run by Sea Turtle Inc. (https://seaturtleinc.org/) filled up.

Photo Credit: Sanjuana Zavala of Sea Turtle Inc.

But what exactly is a “cold stun” and why is it such a problem for turtles?

Sea turtles are ectothermic – meaning they do not generate their own body heat like we do. Instead, they rely on their surrounding environment to keep their bodies within a reasonable temperature. In many cases, if the water conditions become uncomfortable, sea turtle can simply move to another location such as deeper water or further south. But, if the conditions change too quickly or the turtles can’t otherwise move, the turtles are forced to hunker down. If the water temperature drops below approximately 50°F (10°C), their metabolism slows to a crawl and they become lethargic or “cold stunned”. If they stay in this state too long or their body temperature continues to drop, cold stunned turtles can die due to hypothermia, drowning, or predation. This temperature threshold is approximate because sea turtle temperature tolerance varies widely across species and body sizes. For instance, the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) can survive in waters just above freezing through some unique physiological adaptations!

Photo Credit: Texas Game Wardens

Cold stun events are not unique to Texas but rather occur throughout the world. For example, the New England Aquarium regularly flies cold stunned turtles from Massachusetts to Florida each winter. However, the shear number of turtles – primarily green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) – involved in this event is unprecedented!

Many sea turtle managers, local volunteers, and concerned citizens have contributed to ongoing recovery and rehabilitation efforts for these turtles including donations such as massive commercial generator from SpaceX. Once the turtles are warmed back up and the weather conditions permit, most of these cold stunned turtles will be released back into the wild. Unfortunately, some percentage will not survive their ordeal.

Photo Credit: Ed Caum of the City of South Padre Island

Regardless of the outcome, thank you to all those helping with these important conservation efforts! If you see a cold stunned turtle, be sure to report it to your local sea turtle monitoring group or local, state, or federal wildlife management organization!

If you would like to donate to Sea Turtle Inc. to help with their rescue activities, you can do so at https://seaturtleinc.org/2021-cold-stunned-turtles/. Sea Turtle Inc. has been posting regular updates about their activities across their social media profiles including Instagram (@seaturtleinctx) and Facebook (@SeaTurtleConservation).

New Publication Alert – Staghorn coral growth and survival in the Florida Keys!

On Wednesday 6 May, PLoS One released my long-awaited article “Survivorship and growth in staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) outplanting projects in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary” (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/metrics?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0231817)!

Staghorn corals are critical reef-builders throughout the Caribbean and Florida; P4200033 however, their populations experienced a drastic decline in the 1970s and 1980s due to disease, coral bleaching, and other disturbances. Where once they grew into large, dense thickets, most populations of the coral now in Florida represent small, isolated colonies. This decline has severely threatened reef complexity, biological diversity, and aesthetic quality. In 2006, both staghorn coral and their genetic cousin, elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), were placed on the U.S. Endangered Species List.

In an effort to restore these populations, coral nurseries have been established to rear large numbers of colonies for outplanting back to the reef – similar to terrestrial nurseries supplying trees for forest restoration. As these efforts have been around for little more than a decade, the growth and survival of outplanted colonies and the broader efficacy of such restoration efforts is currently being evaluated. FIG 1 WORKING Keys Map 2 20

The Coral Restoration Foundation (https://www.coralrestoration.org/) started its outplanting efforts in 2007 on Molasses Reef off Key Largo, Florida and to date have grown tens of thousands of staghorn colonies in the Tavernier nursery. The growth and survival of 2,419 of these colonies outplanted from 2007 to 2013 were evaluated using photogrammetry and in-situ measurements on SCUBA.

Survivorship of outplanted colonies was generally high for the first 2 years but variable over longer timeframes (4% to 89%). image Weibull survival models projected 0% to 10% survival over 7 years – the longest project record available. Colony condition (i.e., the percentage of live tissue covering on a given colony) also remained high during the first 2 years – greater than 85% coverage. Unfortunately, like survival, these metric of coral health also declined with time.

Coincident with decline in survivorship after 2 years was an apparent plateau in coral growth. By this time, most corals did not exceed 40cm in diameter. Figure 4 size by duration By the end of the study, the average maximum diameter approached 50cm. However, 16.5% of the surviving colonies reached 1 meter across or more, indicating that there is still potential for colonies to grow to their former size. The apparent plateau may represent a functional size limit as a combination of colony fragmentation from wave action and the energy balance between axial extension, branching, tissue repair following predation, and reproduction.

Given these growth and survival observations under present-day conditions, it may take hundreds to thousands of years to meet the NOAA Recovery Plan’s criteria for staghorn coral restoration in the Florida Keys. Increasing the number of coral outplants may help restore some of the lost ecosystem function but will likely not alter the percentage of colonies lost through time. If the restoration times are to be significantly reduced through increased colony survival, regional and global stressors including climate change and marine pollution must be addressed. Though this may sound daunting, this article represents just an early step in a much larger coral restoration story. Understanding how genetics and adaptation (e.g., heat tolerance, calcification rate, growth rate, reproduction through fragmentation vs. spawning, coral microbiome and Symbiodinium symbiosis), environmental conditions (e.g., temperature, nutrients, carbonate chemistry, waves/storms), ecological conditions (e.g., community structure, herbivore density), and management actions (e.g., outplanting in optimal locations, increased outplant capacity with improved bulk attachment techniques, selective breeding, marine protected areas, socioeconomic investment) all interact will prove crucial in our attempts to restore these beautiful ecosystems.

Check out the article at PLoS One:

55th Wildlife Photographer of the Year

After months of anticipation, I can finally share some exciting news: I have been selected as one of the top 100 entries to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year out of over 48,000 entries worldwide!

My photograph, “Beach Waste”, was awarded Highly Commended in Photojournalism and will go on display at the British Natural History Museum on 18 October 2019 before starting a world tour with the exhibition. Though I wish the subject matter was more cheerful, the image tells a powerful story of our current relationship with the sea.

Kemps ridley sea turtle strangled by a beach chair
“Beach Waste”, Highly Commended in Photojournalism, 55th Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

This endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) was found during a morning nesting patrol on the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Gulf Shores, Alabama, USA, apparently strangled by a discarded beach chair. Kemp’s ridleys are the most endangered species of sea turtle worldwide after populations in the Gulf of Mexico plummeted due to harvesting and fisheries bycatch. Nesting outside of the western Gulf (Mexico and Texas) is rare. Interactions with marine debris and abandoned beach equipment is a growing threat not just for Kemp’s ridleys, but all sea turtle species worldwide. We must be better stewards of our environment if we are to see these beautiful creatures return to their former numbers. Please remove your equipment from the beach each night and dispose of any rubbish properly in order to preserve sea turtle nesting habitat – Leave No Trace!

Check out several other Highly Commended images from this year’s competition at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2019/sep/09/wildlife-photographer-of-the-year-2019-highly-commended-pictures, and stay tuned for the announcement of the overall winners next month!

Thank you, ISTS 2019!

A huge “Thank you!” is in order for all of the fellow turtle nerds who made this year’s International Sea Turtle Symposium so fantastic! To the symposium organizers, friends old and new, and all of the great presenters and attendees, this year’s Symposium was awesome. Thank you for making the Charleston ISTS so memorable. A special note goes out to the South Carolina Aquarium (https://scaquarium.org/) for hosting the Opening Social and the Charleston Marriott (https://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/chsmc-charleston-marriott/) for hosting the Symposium.

The FSU Marine Turtle Research, Ecology, and Conservation Group was well represented with 5 oral presentations and 3 posters, including 1 undergraduate presentation! Topics ranged from knowledge gaps regarding juvenile turtles to coastal construction, Leave No Trace ordinances, and wave modeling to traditional uses and poaching. Much of this work either has already been published or will be available soon, so keep an eye out!

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And of course, the annual Symposium would be nothing without the shenanigans of the Live Auction! Funds raised during this event go to sponsoring student travel grants for the next Symposium to the tune of more than $10,000. This year, the lab partnered with Waterlust to come out with a pair of sea turtle leggings (https://waterlust.com/sea-turtle-leggings) made from recycled materials. Waterlust donated a pair to the Live Auction and were a huge hit! As you can see, even the auctioneer was proud to show them off! Congratulations to Chelsea on your latest fashion statement!

We certainly cannot wait for next year’s Symposium in Cartagena, Colombia, March 16-21, 2020 – see everyone next year!

A Global Survey of Microplastic Pollution

Over the last few weeks, the FSU Marine Turtle Research, Ecology, and Conservation Group (FSU MTRECG) has had the privilege of collaborating with the University of Exeter on a global Alligator Point 50survey of microplastic pollution of sea turtle nesting beaches. My labmates Hector Barrios-Garrido, Kelly Soluri, Emily Drobes, and I have collected a total of 120 sand samples from 12 beaches across the Florida Panhandle and Alabama for analysis of their microplastic content. These beaches span from Alligator Point, St. George Island, and the St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge in the east to Fort Morgan and Gulf Shores in the west. This collaboration is an expansion of research efforts by both institutions over the last several years to categorize pollution levels at sea turtle nesting beaches.

Microplastics are defined as any plastic material between 1 and 5 mm in diameter. These can either be manufactured at that size (e.g., microbeads in an abrasive face wash) or reach this size due to weathering of larger marine debris within the environment. A lot of recent literature has been published on the prevalence of these microplastics (and larger marine debris) in the digestive tracts of numerous marine animals across the food chain – from plankton and shellfish to turtles, birds, and whales. Once ingested, this debris can result in blockages of the digestive tract, starvation, and poisoning. The toxic effects of ingestion can be transferred up the food chain through a process called bioaccumulation. However, these plastics do not need to be ingested to have an environmental impact.

Plastics have different thermal properties than sand – meaning they heat up, cool off, and transfer heat differently. The exact difference depend on the types of plastic and sand. In Emily sand samplethe case of sea turtles, which rely on certain environmental conditions to properly incubate their eggs, high levels of microplastic have been theorized to interfere with embryonic development. Sea turtles have temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD). Unlike humans who have X and Y chromosomes to determine sex, in species with TSD the temperature during incubation determines the production of sex hormones (e.g., testosterone) and therefore the sex of the individual. In sea turtles, warmer temperatures result in more female hatchlings – think “hot chicks and cool dudes”. But, get too warm, and the embryos have trouble developing properly (e.g., misshapen scutes in their shells, cleft palate, lack of pigmentation, poor muscular development, etc.) and may die before hatching.

More microplastics in the sand = warmer sand. Warmer sand = more female hatchlings and/or more physical deformities and mortality.

Microplastics may also leach toxicants into the surrounding sand as they continue to decay. These can be transferred into the developing embryos as the eggs exchange water and air with the neighboring sand. The absorption of these toxicants may have both lethal and sub-lethal impacts, depending on the amount and type of toxicant absorbed. PA150103

To date, both of the thermal and toxic impacts of microplastic pollution at sea turtle nesting beaches remains theoretical. However, global collaborations such as this project and ongoing research efforts at FSU MTRECG are seeking to quantify both the scale of the microplastic problem and the likelihood of negative impacts to sea turtle reproduction. A recent update from Dr. Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter, the instigator of this collaboration, has indicated the involvement of 60 programs from around the world in the collaboration. FSU MTRECG’s samples will be 120 of hundreds of samples in the most extensive survey of its kind completed to date. Results of the collaboration are expected between 2019 and 2020, so check back later for updates!

Check out these recent publications from both FSU MTRECG and the University of Exeter to get a sense of the potential problem:

Beckwith, V.K., and M.M.P.B. Fuentes. 2018. Microplastic at nesting grounds used by the northern Gulf of Mexico loggerhead recovery unit. Marine Pollution Bulletin 131A: 32-37.

Duncan, E.M., et al. 2018. The true depth of the Meditteranean plastic problem: Extreme microplastic pollution on marine turtle nesting beaches in Cyprus. Marine Pollution Bulletin 136: 334-340.

FSU MTRECG Publication Update

It’s been a busy summer for the Florida State University Marine Turtle Research, Ecology, and Conservation Group (FSU MTRECG). In addition to the fieldwork conducted by the lab, congratulations are in order for Anthony Gillis, Natalie Montero, and Natalie Wildermann for their first-author publications!

Anthony’s work, “Foraging ecology and diet selection of juvenile green turtles in the Bahamas: insights from stable isotope analysis and prey mapping” was published in the Marine Ecology Progress Series along with co-authors Simona Ceriani, Jeffrey Seminoff, and Mariana Fuentes: https://www.int-res.com/abstracts/meps/v599/p225-238

Natalie Montero’s paper in the Frontiers in Marine Science, “Influences of the local climate on loggerhead hatchling production in north Florida: implications from climate change” was published with co-authors Simona Ceriani, Kelly Graham, and Mariana Fuentes: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2018.00262/full

Natalie Wildermann, along with co-authors Christopher Sasso, Christian Gredzens, and Mariana Fuentes, published “Assessing the effect of recreational scallop harvest on the distribution and behavior of foraging marine turtles” in Oryx: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/oryx/article/assessing-the-effect-of-recreational-scallop-harvest-on-the-distribution-and-behaviour-of-foraging-marine-turtles/511BF5AED0A5E3319E8D688F7D7B563B. Natalie was also the lead author in a recently-accepted publication in Endangered Species Research titled “Informing research priorities for immature sea turtles through expert elicitation” with a whopping 32 co-authors including FSU MTRECG lab-mates Hector Barrios-Garrido and myself, former lab-mate Christian Gredzens, and lab-leader Mariana Fuentes: https://www.int-res.com/prepress/n00916.html

My paper, “Potential for relocation to alter the incubation environment and productivity of sea turtle nests in the northern Gulf of Mexico” was accepted for publication in Chelonian Conservation and Biology along with co-author Mariana Fuentes.

Take a look at each publication and be on the look-out for future publications from this summer’s fieldwork!