Terps to the Rescue

(July 31, 2013) Kristina Pascutti, an Armstrong senior cellular and molecular biology major, spent a week on Wassaw Island, Ga. in July 2013 studying loggerhead sea turtle nests with the Caretta Research Project.

“What I loved about being out there was all the hands-on experience,” she said. “I hope to one day be able to rehabilitate sea turtles and continue to contribute to monitoring efforts during nesting seasons.”

On Wassaw Island, Pascutti focused on monitoring the sea turtles that came ashore, recording information such as nesting locations, identification tags and carapace size. She helped place special screens over nests to protect them from predators and relocated nests when necessary.

“Sea turtle research is important to help biologists understand the reproductive biology and nesting trends of the turtles,” she explained. “This helps us to more effectively conserve the species.”

Pascutti, who plans to attend veterinary school after graduation, is part of a dedicated group of Armstrong professors and students doing their part to help turtles on land and at sea. The university's biology department is conducting ongoing loggerhead sea turtle research, examining the causes of egg failure in sea turtles nests dotting Georgia's beaches.

“There are always some eggs that don't hatch,” said Kathryn Craven, associate professor of biology at Armstrong. “We examine the causes of egg failure and are looking into bacteria and fungi that invade the eggs. If the eggs don't hatch, the sea turtles don't have any chance to grow up. That's why we focus on reducing egg failure.”

A number of undergraduates are involved in turtle conservation efforts, working in the field, visiting local schools or examining specimens in the lab on campus. As part of a research partnership with the Wassaw Island National Wildlife Refuge, Craven and assistant professor of biology Jennifer Brofft Bailey are working closely with four undergraduates on sea turtle research and have presented research findings at national and international conferences.

“Endangered reptiles have a long evolutionary history,” Craven explained. “Humans have begun to influence their population. It's our responsibility to try to reverse the trend.”

In addition to sea turtle egg research, Armstrong also spearheads the Terrapin Education and Research Program of Savannah (TERPS), which is designed to raise awareness of marsh turtles and to reduce the mortality of the diamondback terrapin on area roadways and in local crab traps. The diamondback terrapin, which can be found along the Eastern seaboard, is the only North American turtle species to live exclusively in brackish water.

The TERPS program was originally launched in 2004 by Armstrong undergraduate Jordan Gray, who now works as a zookeeper at the Houston Zoo. The program has evolved into a full-scale educational outreach program and continues to attract students with an interest in biology and wildlife conservation.

“The mission is public education, focused on how to prevent causing harm to marsh turtles,” Craven said. “We also want to find out more about the local turtle population and growth rates.”

Andrew Neidlinger, a senior biology major at Armstrong, leads the TERPS project, visiting local schools and festivals to raise awareness of the diamondback terrapin and other protected turtle species in Georgia. He also monitors eggs and feeds hatchlings daily.

The organization rescues injured female turtles that have been run over on local highways and incubates the eggs before releasing the juvenile turtles into the wild. Their shells are notched to allow them to be studied in the future.

“TERPS gives me the opportunity to do research in the field and to make a difference,” he said. “We're getting the word out and raising awareness about these local turtle species.”

Andrew particularly enjoys working out in the field, observing turtles in their natural habitat. “You see things you just can't see in the classroom