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

A BIG thank you goes out to the Sea Turtle Conservancy ( 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 – 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 (, 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,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. ( 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 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” (!

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 ( 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, 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 ( for hosting the Opening Social and the 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 ( 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:

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:

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: 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:

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!

First nest excavation of the 2018 season

IMG_20180719_063733651Our Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) nest on the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge hatched on Monday 16 July. In order to collect important productivity information, the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge interns excavated the nest this morning, Thursday 19 July. Nest excavations are used to determine the number of eggs laid, estimate the number of hatchlings which successfully emerged from the nest, count how many embryos did not complete development and determine at what stage their development stopped, identify any subterranean predation by ghost crabs (Ocypode quadrata) or infiltration by sea oat (Uniola paniculata) roots, and the depth of the nest. As all sea turtle species in the U.S. are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973, this data is critical for annual reproduction estimates and population modeling.


108 eggs were laid in this nest and a total of 87 hatchlings successfully reached the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, a ghost crab got into the nest after the mass emergence on Monday, resulting in 7 hatchlings being unable to get out of the nest. 8 live hatchlings were still in the nest during the excavation – these were quickly released near the shoreline to crawl out to sea under their own power. It is not uncommon to find a few stragglers left behind following the mass emergence of their siblings. Sea turtle survival to adulthood is very low, often quoted as 1 in 1000, but hopefully at least 1 of these hatchlings makes it back to our beaches in 10-12 years as an adult. 1 hatchling was confirmed predated by a laughing gull (Leucophaeus atricilla) soon after reaching the water. About the size of a McDonald’s chicken nugget, sea turtle hatchlings are common prey items for a range of predators, including birds, crabs, fish, and sharks.

P7190011-2As part of my Ph.D. research, this nest was also outfitted with a PVC device to monitor groundwater inundation and a temperature sensor to track sand temperature throughout the nest’s 2-month incubation. Sea turtle eggshells are soft and leathery, not hard like a chicken egg, and can only spend a limited amount of time underwater during a storm or high tide. It is currently unknown how long developing embryos can “hold their breath”. Understanding this limit is crucial to identifying portions of the beach unsuitable for sea turtle nesting. This particular nest remained dry during its entire incubation. Sea turtles have temperature-dependent sex determination – the warmer the sand, the more females are produced (think “hot chicks and cool dudes”). Hence, the temperature sensor gives us an approximation of the thermal conditions experienced by the nest. The sensor was placed 0.5 m away from the clutch, so it did not capture heat generated by the embryos as they develop, but the sand temperature data can help inform sex ratio estimates and identify times during the incubation when development may have been compromised by overly cold or warm temperatures. Each of our nests on the Fort Morgan peninsula of southern Alabama have been outfitted with these devices. Stay tuned for additional updates as the summer progresses.

We have hatchlings!

IMG_8704On Monday 16 July, the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge had its first hatching of the season! Our Kemp’s Ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) nest, which was laid back in May, surprised us on morning nesting patrol with dozen of fresh hatchling tracks headed from the nest down to the Gulf of Mexico. This was the first nest to hatch anywhere in Alabama this season – and Share the Beach is now anxiously awaiting the arrival of their first loggerhead (Caretta caretta) hatchlings! This comes as welcome news following the discovery of the dead Kemp’s Ridley adult on Saturday 14 July.


Kemp’s Ridleys are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. Following drastic population declines in the mid 20th Century, Kemp’s Ridleys were given protection throughout their range in several ways, including relocating nests from sites in Mexico to Texas. Roughly 2,000 eggs were moved per year from Rancho Nuevo, Mexico to Padre Island, Texas from 1978 to 1988 to attempt to rebuild this nesting site. Nesting is still primarily in the western Gulf of Mexico, but we do get a few nests in any given year here in Alabama. Though they do not nest in large numbers in Alabama, they are prevalent in nearshore waters where they feed on crabs and other crustaceans.

IMG_8734Kemp’s Ridleys typically nest early in the summer, laying an average of 100 ping-pong ball-sized eggs per nest 2 – 3 times per year. The eggs incubate for approximately 2 months, after which the hatchlings will head for the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It takes 10 – 12 years for Kemp’s Ridleys to reach sexual maturity. When full grown, these turtles weigh only about 100 lbs and are just over 2 feet long, making them the smallest sea turtle species. Survival to adulthood is very low in all sea turtle species, but hopefully at least one of these hatchlings will survive to return to our (ideally clean) beaches!

A nest excavation is scheduled for Thursday 19 July to collect productivity data such as the number of eggs laid, how many hatched, and at what development stage embryonic development stopped for eggs which did not hatch. This nest was also outfitted with a temperature sensor in the sand to monitor the incubating environment – the data from which will help describe possible temperature stresses experienced during incubation.


For additional information, check out …

U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service review of the Headstart program

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet