Marine turtles (popularly known as “sea turtles”) are well-liked by all, herpers and “other” people alike. They are, in many ways, creatures of great mystery, yet opportunities to become involved in hands-on research with them abound.
My first field research outside of the USA was with green turtles (Chelonia midas) at Tortuguero, Costa Rica…a place I had been longing to visit since reading So Excellent a Fishe, written by legendary turtle biologist Archie Carr (if you are at all interested in sea turtles or the American tropics in general, please do not miss this book, there’s none other like it).
Archie Carr – the Visionary at Tortuguero
The Caribbean Conservation Corporation operates the world’s longest-running sea turtle monitoring program, and manages the now famous research station at Tortuguero. It was the world’s only sea turtle protection organization when formed by Archie Carr in 1959, and remains the most influential.
The CCC has always relied heavily upon volunteer researchers, and many who have roamed Tortuguero’s beaches have gone on to interesting careers in herpetology…certainly my own experiences there are still an influence after nearly 25 years. The 5 decades’ worth of data gathered by program participants forms the foundation of nearly all that is currently known about the biology of sea turtles in the Caribbean.
Volunteer Opportunities and Contributions
CCC researchers become involved in all aspects of marine turtle field work – counting and re-locating eggs, monitoring nest success, and, most thrilling of all, tagging the huge females at night as they finish nesting (often carried out while mounted on the turtle as she scrambles for the sea!).
Depending upon the season, participants may work with green turtles, 1,200 pound leatherbacks, or both. Studies focusing on the area’s incredible diversity of birdlife (over 300 species have been recorded) are also conducted. An amazing assortment of other wildlife, including jaguars, kinkajous, caiman, tarantulas of several varieties, jaguarundi, tapirs, and strawberry poison frogs, assures that you will be as awestruck as was I.
You can learn more at http://www.cccturtle.org/. There are turtle tagging opportunities here in the USA as well… please look for future articles on diamondback terrapin tagging and other programs.
Cool posting! I’ve seen some pretty neat volunteer/research oppurtunities fwded to me by my advisor at school for people in the biological/marine sciences. Many even have stipends on top of covering your expenses.
I was touched watching the nesting sequence of these turtles on Tortugero the hardships and risks these gals go through for their offspring, bound to land through the shelled egg.(it’d be much more convenient, it seems, if they were to give birth in the water like some of the seasnakes). Also, I’m surprised that the number of eggs they lay is enough to sustain them through all the predation they face in the years it takes them to become adults(our guide even mentioned jaguars attacking nesting females).
One question I’ve got for you is how did you manage to work so much with the animals themselves? As I work on my degree it seems many people drift towards studying such things as genetics(pickled critters), phylogeny(more pickled critters), or molecular biology. Your route is certainly the way less traveled, and to me, at least, the most interesting.
Hi Joseph, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks very much.
Jaguars do indeed go for nesting turtles…I saw jaguar tracks (on top of and among mine!) but did not catch sight of other than eye-flashes in my time there; but a female with cubs was seen on the beach by my co-worker.
Sea snakes do seem to have one up on turtles by bearing live young right in the ocean…nearly all largely aquatic snakes do so as well – typical water snakes, water moccasins, tentacles snakes, elephant trunk snakes, etc., although the sea kraits return to land and lay eggs.
As for sea turtle clutch size, the top (last to be laid) layer of eggs, at least as concerns green turtles, often consists of small, infertile, barely shelled eggs not destined to hatch. There was speculation that these were to satiate predators, or possibly functioned in retaining moisture, but I have not recently checked the current thinking on this.
You raise a very good and very troubling point concerning careers, one I have batted around for most of my life. Hands on work with animals is, by a huge magnitude, most definitely the road less traveled today, and will be more so, I’m afraid, as time goes on.
In times past, direct observation of what animals did in nature and captivity was the rule…my own formative experiences, and the writers who influenced me, were of this nature. As concerns reptiles, you have only to read Ditmars, Ross Allen, Ionides et al – the value of what was learned, and can be learned, is impossible to miss. …and such people were very honest about enjoying themselves at the same time. For mammals, there is Crandall’s Management of Wild Mammals in Captivity – still irreplaceable, full of first-hand accounts…and so on. Of course, there was and remains serious work to be done, but then and now, the really good, dedicated people in the field began as did you – with a deep interest in wild creatures.
However, moving away from direct animal care, “naturalist-type” observations or the type of field work I was involved in is, in most cases, nearly the only way to “move up” in the field. Salaries in zoos, museums etc. are brutally low, and it’s almost a necessity, for many, to forgo the work that brought them into the field…same happens in many other endeavors, but it is particularly true for those interested in animals.
I was able to hold onto the interesting stuff throughout my career…I tried stints that took me out of animal contact but always returned. This meant not fully “using”, at least in the traditional sense, my various degrees, and having to work a second job for most of my life (which life, in about 1/2 hour from now, will turn 1 year older!). But the second jobs were often interesting…writing, consulting and such. It’s a tradeoff – worth it in my case, but difficult…and., of course, the formal education helped out in other ways, opened some doors leading to the second jobs.
All that being said, you really must go as far as you can with your education – sometimes, with a doctorate, you can “come back” to field or hands on work…odd, but you need to leave hands on work if you want to return to it, – at least, that is, return at a possibly livable salary. Without such, you can work as a zookeeper, etc., and possibly have a chance to help out on a few interesting research projects, but that is a tough, if in many ways interesting, road to follow – your options are severely limited in most institutions.
People with wide interests –of which you are surely a fine example – also face great hurdles. That Pet Place has been amazingly accommodating in allowing me to indulge my many passions, but other such situations are few and far between…but that is another complex topic, and I have run on far too long already. Well, please keep me posted as time goes on, hopefully my convoluted road may prove of some use to you.
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.
Hi Frank, have you ever seen land crabs (Gecarcinus or Cardisoma) feeding on eggs or juvenile turtles?
Hello Bob, Frank Indiviglio here.
Thanks for your interest in our blog. I’ve seen crabs of several species (which I did not ID) feeding on egg fragments, in association with nests that had hatched or had been washed out/predated by vultures and mongooses; but not digging into nests or attacking an intact egg.
I’ve kept Coconut Crabs and many other terrestrial species, as far as I can recall all consumed hard boiled egg when offered.
Are you researching this?…I’d be interested in what you turn up.
Good luck and please keep me posted.
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.