UIU senior studies sea turtles during internship

Upper Iowa University senior Sydney Mohr recently returned from a weekend visit to St. Catherines Island, Georgia, where she witnessed the culmination of a month-long research project – the hatching of thousands of tiny loggerhead sea turtles.

From June 10-July 10, Mohr studied the correlation between the size of female loggerheads, the number of eggs they lay and the volume of their egg chambers with the St. Catherines Island Sea Turtle Conservation Program, headed by Dr. Gale A. Bishop, an emeritus professor of geology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Ga.

During summer 2012, Mohr was interning with Original Butterfly House and Insect World on Mackinac Island, Mich., where she fell in love with the tortoise that lives there. “They are just so amazing and have these great personalities,” said Mohr. Back at Upper Iowa for the 2012-13 academic year, Mohr sat down with Dr. Kata McCarville, UIU associate professor of geosciences, to discuss an internship studying turtles of the Mississippi River.

After Mohr expressed her interest in studying turtles and tortoises, McCarville said if she was that enthusiastic about the reptiles, she should see about interning for McCarville’s husband, Dr. Bishop, who has headed the sea turtle conservation program at St. Catherines Island since 1990.

Because of her foundation in biology and chemistry from Upper Iowa University, Bishop selected her as one of five interns from all over the United States that conducted research on sea turtles for the summer.

Mohr tested two methods during her internship, which culminates in poster presentation during Homecoming this week, a final paper and a presentation to be given at the conclusion of her senior thesis course. Upon graduation from Upper Iowa in December, Mohr intends to go on to graduate school at the University of Georgia, where they are studying the mitochondrial DNA as part of a sea turtle genetics project.

Each morning of the internship, Mohr was on the beach by 5:30 looking for evidence of female loggerhead sea turtles that may have laid their eggs during the night. Once crawl patterns were located, Mohr investigated the nests, being very careful in moving the eggs to a new location so that she could take a mold of the nest to study its size and shape. She also counted the number of eggs in the chamber and was able to discern the size of the mother by measuring the female’s crawl pattern.

Mohr hopes to find a correlation between the size of the mother and the number of eggs she lays and the size of the egg chamber she digs. “To me, it would make sense that the bigger the mother, the more eggs she’ll lay and the larger the egg chamber will be,” said Mohr. “We’ll see as I analyze the data.”

The typical loggerhead sea turtle lays on average 113 eggs. Mohr and her intern friends discovered quite an unusual nest this summer. In a larger-than-normal egg chamber, they found 228 eggs! They assumed at first that it was two nests in one, but Dr. Bishop determined that it was indeed one nest laid by one turtle.

During her recent weekend visit, Mohr completed her internship by learning to inventory the nests. Digging out each nest after the majority of the baby turtles had crawled to the ocean, Mohr and the interns counted the number that hatched versus those that didn’t hatch, and if any babies died in the nest to determine each nest’s hatch success rate.

“This internship has been such a rewarding experience for me,” said Mohr. “Because of the opportunities available through Upper Iowa, I was able to study something that really interested me, and now that interest has deepened even more. I will have a life-long passion because of the connections through Upper Iowa University.”

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