Addressing Fundamental Ecological Questions:
My Model Species…The Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)
I must admit, when I travelled to Greece to volunteer my time with a loggerhead sea turtle non-governmental organisation 20 years ago, I was oblivious that this charismatic species would form the basis of my research career. By chance, I ended up working on a beautiful isolated beach that was frequented by 10s of nesting loggerhead sea turtles every night. Basically, I was hooked.
Every researcher has a model species, be it deliberately or accidentally. Sea turtles are, in fact, excellent model systems for the marine environment. Consequently, I have a broad range of research focuses that are constantly expanding. For instance, much of my work focuses on science based management of coastal and oceanic areas, which involves spatial and temporal GIS based analyses of movement patterns. I even developed in-water capture techniques so as to enhance our knowledge about male turtle movement patterns (as they do not emerge on the beaches like females do to nest). I also took advantage of working in a location with clear blue waters absent of threats (e.g. sharks and dangerous jellyfish), to develop an extensive photo identification database of the population, in addition to detailed behavioural studies in the field. Because turtles are ectotherms, they are fantastic for evaluating the possible impacts of climate change, as various life-history parameters of these species are highly sensitive to climate variation from temperature sex determination to reproductive clutch frequency, as well as the phenology of migration from foraging and breeding sites.
As I am involved in the research of several sea turtle species at various locations worldwide, I am involved in identifying migratory corridors used by multiple species across taxa. I also work at one of the few locations in the world where sea turtles form part of wildlife watching activities in the marine environment, and so have established techniques to enhance the quantitative evaluation of this activity. Finally, my recent work is increasingly focusing on global trends and gap analyses in relation to protected area management and various biological parameters. Thus, sea turtles are ideal for addressing a range of biological questions.
However, nothing beats one-on-one interactions with these amazing animals that have been around since the dinosaurs. While much of my time is spent analysing data and compiling papers these days, I make sure I take the time to look for mating turtles in spring, resting females on the seabed in summer (between nesting events when the rest to develop eggs) and resident males fighting for discarded fish from the fishermen in winter. While sea turtles are ideal model species, they are at threat of extinction due to various direct and indirect activities. Ultimately, I hope that, in some way, I am contributing towards helping to safeguard individual and global sea turtle populations of the seven species through my scientific research.
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