Most Marco residents know that Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve protects 110,000 acres of coastal lands and waters on Southwest Florida’s coast, but few are aware that this outdoor classroom and living laboratory hosts hundreds of research projects undertaken by DEP staff, graduate research fellows, and visiting scientists from around the world to answer scientific questions about the wildlife, plants and habitats. The results of these projects contribute to the reserve’s overall understanding of local trends and often help guide future management and restoration efforts.
One local scientist studying in the reserve is Dr. Jeff Schmid, Environmental Research Manager with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. His ongoing research is focusing on the Kemp’s ridley turtle, the most endangered and also the most abundant sea turtle species in the reserve’s waters.
Schmid’s in-water studies aim to characterize sea turtle aggregations inhabiting the Ten Thousand Islands estuarine complex within the Rookery Bay Reserve. “This is a very unique collaborative project,” said Schmid. “Our efforts are focused on the Kemp’s ridley but we catch other species such as loggerhead and green turtles.” The collaborative research is multi-faceted and includes studies of Kemp’s ridley diet, trophic ecology, and sex determination. Some Kemp’s ridleys have also been instrumented with satellite transmitters to provide a better understanding of how this species uses the TenThousand Islands estuary and surrounding waters.
Rookery Bay Reserve is a dedicated partner in this effort. Research activities require direct water access where captured Kemp’s ridley turtles can be temporarily housed in holding tanks for diet studies, and the reserve’s Ten Thousand Islands Field Station in Goodland provides this exact combination of facilities. The Conservancy’s specially designed research vessel, such as the ones used by Rookery Bay Reserve scientists for fisheries research, is docked at the field station during sampling efforts. With help from reserve biologist Greg Curry, Schmid is able to rapidly deploy a large mesh tangle net to encircle and capture sea turtles for the study. As a co-investigator on the project, Curry is also instrumental in data collections and logistics.
“We are pleased to partner in this important study,” said reserve director Keith Laakkonen. “Our visiting scientist program was designed to help others help us learn more about the habitat the reserve protects, and we especially appreciate the opportunity to learn more about this threatened species.”
Previous research found that Kemp’s ridley turtles in the Ten Thousand Islands were primarily feeding on solitary tunicates, which are marine animals (about the size of a human thumb) that live on the bottom and filter their food from the water. According to Schmid, cursory examination of recent samples suggests turtles inthis region have shifted their diet to other types of bottom-dwelling organisms, such as sponges and colonial tunicates.
According to Schmid, estuaries in the Reserve provide the resources that young Kemp’s ridleys need to grow to adulthood. “Conservation efforts by the U.S. and Mexico have helped bring the Kemp’s ridley back from the brink of extinction,” he said. “Understanding how turtles live in estuaries, and protecting these vital feeding areas, will ensure the viability of this endangered species.”
These collaborative studies are supported in part by a grant awarded from the Sea Turtle Grants Program. The Sea Turtle Grants Program is funded from proceeds from the sale of the Florida sea turtle license plate. Learn more at www.helpingseaturtles.org. Satellite transmitters were funded by private donations to the Conservancy.
The Science Department at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida works across a wide range of projects to support the organization’s mission to protect Southwest Florida’s water, land, wildlife and future. More information about the Kemp’s ridley studies is available at: www.conservancy.org/our-work/science/wildlife/kemps-ridley.
Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Coastal Office, in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For more information visit www.rookerybay.org.
Renee Wilson is Communications Coordinator at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. She has been a Florida resident since 1986 has joined the staff at the reserve in 2000.