Sunday, March 12, 2017

Intern research on display

By: Elizabeth Whitman

Our work is made possible by the help of our interns and assistants! Laura Thornton and Ryley Parent, and Liberty Boyd took on individual projects while assisting me with my dissertation research in Abaco, Bahamas during the summer of 2016.  Earlier this year, Laura and Ryley presented their work at FIU’s Biosymposium.

Laura (top left) and Ryley (bottom left) posing next to their posters after presenting them at FIU's Biosymposium
Laura took the lead on a project to assess the foraging preferences of the variegated urchin, Lytechinus variegatus, and to provide a better picture of their role in seagrass ecosystem dynamics. This echinoderm is commonly found in tropical seagrass meadows; however, little is known about the feeding preferences of these urchins. We conducted cafeteria (food options provided with equal probability of encounter) and natural (naturally growing food options) feeding experiments in a shallow coastal seagrass meadow near Marsh Harbour, Abaco. In both experiments the urchins appeared to first choose and consume turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) before moving on to consume other seagrass and algae species. We are now awaiting the results of nutrient content analysis on the seagrass and algae to see if the urchins prioritize food with higher nutrient content.

Ryley developed an outreach campaign to encourage restaurants to stop serving turtle meat, which currently is against the law. The Bahamian law, passed in 2009, prohibits the taking of turtles or disturbing of nests; however, despite enforcement by local Abaco fisheries officers, there is still demand for turtle meat. Her goal is to educate the public about the laws and encourage the community to support them. Ryley speaks with restaurant owners about the campaign, asks them to hang “Turtle Free Restaurant” signs in visible areas, and in return publishes the names of participating restaurants in local publications. She is currently pursuing additional support to continue the campaign in Abaco and eventually expand it to other Caribbean locations.

Ryley will be presenting this project and Liberty will be presenting her study on the effects of burrowing sea cucumbers on green turtle foraging habitat at this year’s International Sea Turtle Symposium
This team of Abaco Global FinPrint volunteers were reunited at the Biosymposium! 
From left to right: Valeria Paz, Riki Bonnema, Ryley Parent, Elizabeth Whitman, Liberty Boyd and Laura Thornton

Our middle-school intern, Michael Odzer won a special award and 6th place in environmental science at the Florida State Science Fair on his project using drone video to identify trends in green turtle distributions within a seagrass dominated bay in Abaco, Bahamas!

Here he writes about his experience:

"I'm pretty sure there aren't many middle school kids who know as much about green sea turtles as I do. I can answer almost any question about Chelonia midas. I know this because judge after judge peppered me with questions at the Florida State Science and Engineering Fair in Lakeland in March. 
     My knowledge of sea turtles comes from a research project I participated in on a turtle habitat in the Abaco Islands. Elizabeth Whitman's team made a bunch of videos using drones over the Bight of Old Robinson and I got to analyze the videos to determine where the turtles were spending most of their time. I turned this into a science fair project which was chosen as the best project at my school, Highland Oaks Middle. The next step was competing at the Miami-Dade County STEM Exposition, commonly known as the science fair. This was an all-day, pretty exhausting experience. Five judges came to inspect my board and ask me questions about the project. I had to know all the details of the research, the animal, the location, what the practical applications could be and what further research needs to be done. I must have done a good job because they chose my project to go on to the state science fair, one of 30 kids who had the honor of representing Miami-Dade County in Lakeland. 
     The state science fair is an amazing experience! More than 800 middle and high school students showed off their work, and it was really impressive. You can learn a lot just by walking through the displays. All the kids in my area had great projects and they were all really smart, and the judges were tough. Just like the county fair, it was an all-day experience and I was really nervous until the first judge told me she liked my work, and after that I felt confident. I did my best to explain why green sea turtles were important and why this work of surveying them is vital to helping them survive. 
     I ended up winning two awards at the FSSEF, and of course, I could not have done it without Beth's help and guidance. More importantly, I have become a wildlife conservation advocate, thanks to everyone at FIU who helped make my experience possible."
Michael Odzer first presenting his internship
project at the Miami-Dade Science Fair



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