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Sea turtles: Researchers want to track hatchlings from nests

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Sea turtles dig the dark. That’s why researchers from Coastal Carolina University are trying to raise $4,000.

As part of an on-going study into the effects of light on sea turtle hatchlings, staff and students from the marine science department want to set up cameras to track them as emerge from the nest and make their way to the ocean. The best way to do that is with an infrared camera, said Eric Koepfler, a professor at Coastal Carolina who is leading the project.

It’s well established that light from man-made sources can cause hatchlings to become disoriented. Georgetown County and the town of Pawleys Island have ordinances restricting outdoor lights along the beachfront. Santee Cooper, the state-owned utility, has promoted a campaign to shield lights with the slogan “Sea Turtles Dig the Dark” in partnership with the volunteer monitoring group SCUTE.

“We’re trying to find out what the threshold of light intensity is,” Koepfler said. “That would have some management implications.”

The problem has become particularly acute in Florida, he said. Jeff McClary, co-founder of SCUTE, still has photos from the 1980s of hatchlings at Garden City that crawled toward street lights and were run over by cars.

“The darker the better,” McClary said. “We encourage people to pull their blinds.” But on the Waccamaw Neck beaches, he sees the influence of “light pollution.” “Historically, in the Litchfield, Pawleys, DeBordieu area [hatchlings] have gone to the north, to the glow of Myrtle Beach.”

Starting in 2013, Koepfler and his students began measuring the “light field” on beaches from Little River Inlet to Hobcaw. Then they compared that information with nesting data collected by the state Department of Natural Resources. This year, they want to track hatchlings and examine the variance in their movements according to the amount of light on the beach.

Koepfler and Taylor Harris, a senior in the marine science department, started a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for a pair of infrared cameras. “The technology hasn’t really been used, not for this purpose,” Harris said.

The campaign is posted online at experiment.com. As of Wednesday, it had raised $2,747. “It’s all or nothing,” Harris said, though they can keep any excess funds. The deadline to donate is Saturday.

It’s the first science project at the university that has gone online for funding, Koepfler said. The university allots $200 or $300 for undergraduate projects. Too big for that and too small for a grant, crowd-funding seemed ideal. It helps that it’s for a topic that involves an iconic species. “I’m hoping it’s successful,” Koepfler said. “If it is, I think there are others that will follow.”

If the funds come through, he and Harris hope to start tracking hatchlings this summer. The project will also use technology to monitor the nests for sounds of activity that indicate hatching is occurring. A camera will be set up and monitored by the researchers. They asked Natural Resources for permission to “camp” near the nests to protect both the equipment and any turtles that are disoriented.

“We wanted to come up with a standard for determining the hatchling movement,” Koepfler said. They will study the video frame by frame to track direction, speed and movement patterns. “If they’re zigzagging, it’s less efficient and they’re using energy,” he said. Even where there is a glow from man-made light, Koepfler said studies have found that dunes or even buildings that create a dark horizon from the sea turtle’s vantage point area help.

And Harris said there are other factors than can influence hatchlings. “It’s never 100 percent,” she said. “It’s theory and ideas. That’s what I love about it.”

She will graduate in December and she hopes her research with Koepfler will help her find a place in a postgraduate program. She’s a native of Oklahoma who came to Coastal Carolina on a softball scholarships. “I’ve wanted to be a marine scientist since I was a little girl,” she said. Her interest is the neurobiology of marine mammals, but she got interested in the sea turtle project while helping monitor nesting on Waites Island two summers ago.

“It will be nice experience to have under her belt,” Koepfler said. “Graduate programs are very competitive.”

But aside with her help in promoting the crowd-funding effort on social media, he said Harris has also contributed to the team effort in the research project. “She has the kind of attitude necessary to pull this off,” Koepfler said. “Student athletes tend to be very organized and motivated.”

Harris is ready to spend her nights on the beach if the money can be raised for the cameras. “The cameras are cutting edge,” she said.

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