Internship at the Beach: Armstrong biology major studies sea turtles on Wassaw Island

Surrounded by a team of volunteers, Morgan Lamb crouches on the beach on Wassaw Island, Ga., in the dead of night, watching the waves roll up to the shore.

Finally, he sees the target emerging from the breaking waves: a loggerhead sea turtle. Using her flippers, the massive female crawls across the sand to lay her eggs. Morgan and the rest of the research team follow, taking notes and recording data. Throughout the night, several more sea turtles come ashore, each one carefully recorded by the team.

This summer, Morgan, a senior majoring in Biology at Armstrong, is interning with the Caretta Research Project on Wassaw Island, keeping a long-term database of loggerheads and leatherbacks nesting on the island.

All of the project’s research happens from sundown to sunrise, when the turtles are active on land. The team members patrol the beach looking for turtles or nests. They check for tags, which they place on the loggerheads to track their annual nesting habits.

“This is a tagging and database collection,” Morgan says, but the team performs other duties as well, like putting up barriers to prevent predation and moving nests if the turtles build them too close to the high tide line.

Started in 1973, the Caretta Research Project aims to protect the local sea turtle population and to educate volunteers by providing a hands-on experience. Originally, turtles on Jekyll Island were the target, but the project has since moved to Wassaw Island. The goal is to learn more about population trends by tagging female sea turtles and collecting as much data as possible.

“We’re looking to collect viable fresh eggs,” Morgan explains, “which not a lot of people can do.”

Because the loggerhead is a protected species, anyone wishing to interact with them must get permits and have extensive field biology experience. The Caretta Research Project provides enough experience to allow volunteers to participate in the data collection process.

Morgan landed the internship because of his involvement with Armstrong’s STEP program for rising college freshmen. Federally funded by the National Science Foundation, the program allows students to begin research projects for six weeks before they begin their classes at Armstrong.

In STEP, Morgan’s research focus was on the microbes that could cause sea turtle nests to fail, which is how he got involved with the Caretta Research Project. Dr. Kathryn Craven, an associate professor of biology at Armstrong, nominated him for the summer internship based on his research.

Wassaw Island is an ideal place to do sea turtle research because it has very little light pollution and large beachfront areas for nesting. A family owns part of the island and rents out two houses on the property for the project’s workers. Volunteers go there to learn about sea turtles and help the researchers collect data.

“It’s a learning experience for them,” he says.

It’s been a learning experience for Morgan as well. So far, he’s learned about epibionts, which are organisms living on the backs of turtle shells, and about bioluminescence, which he says is “really pretty at night.”

Morgan plans to attend medical school when he graduates from Armstrong in 2015. His favorite part about his Armstrong experience? The biology professors, especially Dr. Jennifer Brofft, who he worked under when he began STEP.

“We have a pretty solid crew of professors,” he raves. “They are fantastic.”