Every summer, hundreds of baby sea turtles hatch on Topsail Island and make their way to the ocean by the light of the moon. They face many threats: ghost crabs prey on them; competing light from houses, hotels, and other buildings that line the beach misdirect them, and sharks and other predators await them in the vast ocean. But a few survive until adulthood, and every year for millions of years, female turtles have returned to their natal beaches to nest, and start the cycle again.
The Museum’s Head of Outreach, Jerry Reynolds, leads a trip to the beach each August, giving participants the rare chance to witness a hatching. Loggerhead sea turtles are the primary species to nest on Topsail, and their hatchlings usually emerge at night, in the relative safety of darkness. Some years, participants have huddled on the beach in the cold and rain for hours, “nest-sitting” a nest that didn’t hatch that night. Some years, they arrived at a nest only to find that it had already hatched. But some years, they get lucky.
August 14, 2016
The first night of our trip I got to see 20 baby loggerhead sea turtles make their way down to the ocean.
First, the group attended a loggerhead nest analysis at the other end of the island. A nest analysis is performed three days after the nest hatches, and includes collection and counting of eggs and eggshell fragments, any babies that didn’t make it, and any surviving hatchlings that didn’t make it out of the nest. They recovered a lot of eggshell fragments and a number of unhatched eggs, but all of the ones that did hatch made it out of the nest.
As soon as the analysis was done we drove to the north end of the island, where our assigned loggerhead nest awaited. We all set up our beach chairs and settled in for what we knew could be a long night. But we didn’t have very long to wait before we heard the stage-whispered exclamation from the person nearest the nest: the first hatchling had emerged and was headed towards the water!
Volunteers from the Topsail Island Turtle Patrol build sand “runways” for the hatchlings of each nest, mostly so the many people who turn up to watch the hatchings don’t accidentally step on the turtles. However, because 1) the runways are built ahead of time, 2) there’s no way to predict quite when a nest will hatch, and 3) the moon moves, the direction of a runway may not match the direction of the moon when the turtles hatch. And unfortunately, our runway wasn’t lined up with the moon.
We helped keep the parade of baby turtles on the runway when they strayed in the direction of the moon, using our arms to block them from coming over the top of our side of the ramp. The last turtle tried so hard to go toward the moon that it almost climbed over my arm, turned around & started going the wrong way, and then finally back to scrabble against my arm. One of the volunteers came over and set the little creature back in the center of the runway, and off it went, down toward the next person and out of my sight toward the ocean. They say maybe one hatchling in a thousand makes it to the Sargasso Sea. That little one tried so hard, I really hope it makes it.
Elated, we moved to a new nest that our Turtle Patrol contact thought was likely to hatch soon. The new nest had the tell-tale depression at the top that indicated movement below; underneath the sand, the turtles were coming out of their eggs. But despite waiting and watching until about 3:30am, no turtles emerged.
August 15, 2016
Today we toured the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. After a brief orientation, we got a look at the medical and husbandry areas, met a tiny loggerhead hatchling, and quietly filed by as a newly rescued turtle received treatment for its injuries.
We toured the “Sea Turtle Bay,” the huge area where most of the turtles are housed in large tanks while being rehabilitated. Most of the turtles are loggerheads, but there were a handful of green sea turtles and just one of the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, a blind permanent resident of the hospital named “Lennie.”
Finally, the Topsail Island Turtle Project’s founder, Jean Beasley, kindly took the time to speak to the group, and gave an impassioned plea for conservation.
Tonight we were incredibly lucky to watch a nest analysis of a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, a species that normally only nests at one location in Mexico, and sometimes in Texas. The analysis was attended by none other than Jean Beasley!
There were several eggs from the nest that didn’t hatch, and a few hatchlings that didn’t survive, but there was one hatchling in this nest that was recovered alive.
Typically, if a hatchling looks viable, it will be released at sunset. I’m not sure what happened with that hatchling, but we were able to take some photos of the nest analysis, including the baby. The really good news is that they thought 75 hatchlings had made it out of the nest, and hopefully, to the ocean.
After the nest analysis we drove 20 miles north to the other end of the island to sit with the same nest we had stayed with last night. This time, we’d barely parked the vans on the side of the road when Jerry got a text from the nest coordinator telling him that the hatchlings had their noses up, poking through the sand hole at the top of the nest. We scrambled with what we could instantly grab and jogged to the nest site. Some of the hatchlings were already in the ocean, and a line of baby turtles was trundling down the turtle “highway.” We watched until all of the babies were safely to the water — a magical sight.
Because of the prohibition on any kind of artificial lights while the hatchlings are on the beach, photos can only be taken during a hatching with an infrared camera, which nobody on this trip had, but we did get some photos of the turtle tracks.
We went back to the vans and moved a mile or so north to another nest that our contact thought might hatch. We set up our beach chairs by the runway and were settling in for the night when the rumor circulated that an adult female had come ashore to lay her eggs, but had possibly been spooked by something and went back in the ocean. Often if this happens, the mother sea turtle will come ashore and try again somewhere close by.
It wasn’t long before we heard the news — the turtle had indeed come ashore only a little distance to the north! We ran ahead to find her. The first thing I saw was a dark shape against the dune, but fellow trip participant Dan Harvey trained his birding scope on her, and we watched from afar as she started to lay her clutch. A few minutes later, Jerry returned from a run to the van with his night scope, which made the scene appear as if illuminated by bright green light.
The mother turtle laid her eggs quickly, and the group took turns watching through the scopes as she covered them up with her flippers. Nesting often takes two or three hours, but before we knew it, she was headed back down to the surf. We followed her at a distance, and came gradually closer to where we could see her. She was enormous — apparently an older, more experienced mother turtle. The nest coordinator shone a red light on her, checking for tags. She didn’t have any, but the light was enough for a couple people to take photos, and Curator of the Museum’s Living Conservatory, Andy Kauffman, got a short video of the turtle making her way through the waves to deeper water. Although rough and indistinct, the photos and video commemorate the coda of an extraordinary trip.
I have been trying to go on the Topsail Turtle Trip for almost a decade, but something always prevented me from going. This year I finally got to go, and it was more than worth the wait. We couldn’t have been luckier — it was epic.
The Least Brook Lamprey, that is!
This is a fish story – perhaps unlike any other fish story that you have heard and I’m sure that you have heard some doozies. This story starts in March of 2005, soon after my family moved into our neighborhood in rural Johnston County. Chris, my then 14-year-old son, saw some long skinny fish in the stream behind our house and asked what they were. I dipped one up with a net and expected it to be an American Eel (Anguilla rostrata). I immediately knew it was not and recognized the lamprey-like appearance. A quick phone conversation with Wayne Starnes, then Curator of Fishes at the Museum, revealed that it was the Least Brook Lamprey (Lampetra aepyptera). This is a small (4-7 inches), non-migratory and non-parasitic freshwater lamprey unlike the Sea Lamprey you may be more familiar with. There were so few records of them from the state that Wayne was glad to get a few specimens for the research collection.
The stream where we found them is so small that you can step across it in most places. It is a clear running stream with an average depth of only about 6 inches on a gravel and sand bed. The stream originates in the mixed wooded area behind my house and is probably spring fed. Most people would not give the stream a second thought and probably would lump it in the category of a “drainage ditch”. But for the Least Brook Lamprey (and who knows what else) this little stream and others like it is their whole world. They live here, feed here, reproduce here and die here! So these little streams are not just special to them—they are essential.
The Least Brook Lamprey belongs to the family Petromyzontidae, which includes about 20 species of freshwater brook lampreys plus the Sea Lamprey in North America. The Least Brook Lamprey is one of three brook lampreys found in North Carolina. In North Carolina it is only known from a few locations in the Neuse and Tar River basins. The species may be more widespread in these two river systems, but they are very hard to detect except during their short spawning season. The two-three week spawning season is the culmination of a very interesting life cycle.
These lampreys start in a larval fish form, called ammocoetes, hatched from the eggs produced during spawning. As ammocoetes, the lampreys live in the stream sediment and filter feed on algae and other organic material. The ammocoetes do not even have eyes in this form. They live for 3 to 7 years in this stage (Fritz Rohde et. al. 1976) feeding in the stream bed and generally hidden from sight. Only when the lampreys transform to the adult form and emerge to spawn do they become easy to see. And what a show they put on!
The adult lampreys work in small groups (3-10 +) creating nest depressions in the sand and gravel substrate of the stream. Working in shallow water with a steady current, they are almost always swimming upstream and using their sucker-like mouth to move rocks from the depression. They also anchor to larger rocks and vigorously undulate their body churning sand and smaller rocks out of the depression. They rest by anchoring to a rock, floating just under the stream surface.
Intervals of spawning occur the nest building activity. The female anchors to a larger rock and then a male will attach with his mouth on top of the female’s head. He then curls the posterior of his body around the female and both vigorously wriggle. Eggs and sperm are being released at this time. The sticky eggs fall and stick to the sand and gravel substrate. Hatching is presumed to happen within a few days. And thus the ammocoete phase of their life begins.
The adult lampreys do not feed at all and die soon after the spawning season. Since the larval lampreys take at least several years to mature, it is presumed that each year’s group of spawning adults are from the brood of one or two year’s spawning a few years ago. So it would be expected that the number of adults observed will vary from year to year based on reproductive effort in a previous year and on stream conditions in the intervening years before maturity that would have affected the growth and survival of the larval lampreys.
I began systematically documenting the lampreys spawning effort in 2015 by surveying the section of stream immediately behind my house every day during the two-three week spawning season. In 2015, my highest daily count was 14 lampreys. In 2016, my highest count was 43 lampreys.
It is a short show, but it is a fascinating thing to watch when the lampreys are spawning. Towards the end of the spawning season, the few remaining lampreys just hang out in or near the nest attached to a rock and limply swaying with the current as their life comes to an end. It is a little sad, but this is the way of their life on earth.
The small streams that they need for their life on earth are also a dying “breed”. These small clear running streams don’t fare too well with nearby construction of commercial and residential projects. It would only take one faulty siltation fence or retention pond from a nearby construction project to fail resulting in the smothering of such a stream under a blanket of mud and silt. The lampreys and all the other inhabitants of the stream would suffer greatly.
So relish those small streams. Spend some time in them to discover the wonderful diversity of life they support. And keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t suffer from any construction projects that might be nearby. Once lost, it is hard to get them and all the life that once was there back. The Least Brook Lamprey may not be the prettiest animal you will ever see. But they certainly are one of the more interesting animals that live here. Ensuring their continued survival in our world is the least that we can do!
The binturong, or “bearcat,” is a mostly fruit-eating carnivore that is not closely related to either bears or cats. Binturongs have bristly, gray-tipped black fur covering a low-slung, stocky body, and walk flat-footed with a shuffling gait. They live in the forest canopies of Southeast Asia, and most of them only descend to the ground to change trees. They rely on claws and caution rather than great agility to move from branch to branch. Binturongs smell like corn chips or buttered popcorn, and primarily use scent to communicate. Nevertheless, they can be chatty creatures, vocalizing to express that they are pleased, annoyed, hunting, or, in the case of females, amorous.
I interviewed Mindy Stinner, co-founder and Executive Director of the Conservators Center, about her experiences caring for, and striving to conserve this extreme mammal. The Conservators Center in Burlington, North Carolina, currently houses four binturongs, and has been involved in caring for members of the species for 12 years.
Mindy, how did you first become interested in binturongs?
I was drawn to them shortly after I graduated college, when I first began working with wildlife. I found their anatomy and personalities to be truly unique in the animal kingdom. Over the years, I’ve cared for a number of young binturongs, who are easier to handle and whose natural behaviors and traits are easier to study.
What about binturongs most surprised you when you started working with them?
Firstly, it’s often easy to generalize species-wide preferences, especially with enrichment: this species loves to play in water and that species does not; this species enjoys being on the ground and that one does not. However, with the binturongs I observed far more individual variation than I anticipated. Some binturongs not only enjoy swimming but will eagerly leap into a pool from a raised platform with a full-face submersion on landing. Others will barely deign to dip their toes in cool water on a hot day. Some binturongs seem very comfortable moving around on the ground; others will undertake seriously amazing gymnastic endeavors to avoid touching the ground at all, such as walking across the ceiling of their enclosure sloth-style then climbing down the wall for a drink of water. Some binturongs are pristine in their hygiene, grooming often and sleeping on clean pallets; others have constant bed-heads with full-body cowlicks and maintain a habit of supplementing their bedding with their own waste. I never expected such variation in individual preferences. To me, this adds to their intrigue and charm.
Secondly, I did not expect such engaging personalities from the binturongs I grew to know personally. As a rule, the older adults did not really care about my visits unless I brought a good bribe, like a snack. Like many seniors, they were overall set in their ways. Younger binturongs, however, are constantly seeking engagement with the world. They experience it in ways we have trouble anticipating because our sensory input is so different from theirs.
Some solicit belly rubs and do somersaults with delight at getting focused attention. (In fact, when you rub the belly of a contented binturong, they make a noise that is somewhere between a giggle and a purr, a sort of whuffling noise. They will also cackle if they get excited, and we use this as a cue they are getting overstimulated—like a cat who was fine for the first 30 seconds of a belly rub but who suddenly becomes overwhelmed by it.)
Some juveniles require a full head-sniffing greeting from all people who visit. Binturongs do not seem especially scent motivated in the way a cat is, but they do enjoy certain musky scents and I suspect are very sensitive to the pheromones of other animals and of people. Overall, I have been delighted at how these animals reach out to interact with people and the world at large.
In the Extreme Mammals special exhibition, “extreme” is defined as something that departs significantly from the normal, average, or ancestral condition. What would you say is extreme about binturongs?
They are already very unique by way of being one of just two carnivores with a prehensile tail. Add to that their vertical-slit pupils for seeing in changing light, their non-retractable claws for climbing and their arboreal habits, and their unique talent for seed dispersal and planting (especially of critical rainforest plants), and you have a pretty extreme mammal indeed.
Video: Cole Bearcat Binturong showing off her acrobatic talents.
Binturongs are considered a keystone species, due in part to their nearly unique ability to help germinate strangler figs. What is a keystone species, and why is the strangler fig so important to the rainforest?
A keystone species is a species that performs a pivotal role in keeping an ecosystem in balance; you can use the health of this species to measure the health of its environment.
Strangler figs make up a critical portion of the rainforest canopy in many parts of Southeast Asia. Other plants use the strangler fig for stability, and animals that live in the canopy use the strength of its support during their daily movement in search of food and nesting areas. So much of the ecosystem depends on this one tree. However, the seed of the strangler fig has a thick coating; some animals eat around the seed, some destroy the seed by eating it, and some pass the seed through their systems with the thick coating unscathed. However, none of these instances allow the seed to germinate.
Enter the binturong. In a process called endozoochory, the binturong is able to eat the delicious and nutritious fruit, and the seed’s protective coating is removed by the binturong’s digestive tract as the seed passes through its system. This method of seed dispersal usually involves two or more co-evolved species in a relationship that helps shape and preserve the ecosystem in a way that is beneficial to both species. The “teamwork” of the binturong and the strangler fig is critical to helping maintain the rainforest in a condition ideal for both species.
Binturongs are classed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, with populations declining more than 30 percent over the past 30 years. They are primarily threatened by habitat destruction, hunting, and the pet trade. How is the Conservators Center working to help binturongs? What can individuals do to help?
It can be very challenging to protect a species that lives far away from us, with threats to its existence we have little control over. Instead, we try to focus on what we can control. We provide homes to the binturongs at the Conservators Center, where they help educate thousands of people every year about the importance of protecting this species and their native environment.
The Center also participates in multiple research efforts to help everyone learn more about binturongs; we donate binturong anatomical measurements, DNA, and other types of samples. Our staff and interns experiment with new enrichment and dietary adjustments, then record behavioral changes and observations to share with other experts in binturong husbandry.
When other facilities nearby (and even in the binturongs’ native lands in Asia) have a binturong-related problem to solve, our staff provides guidance and support for husbandry needs and makes referrals to our experienced care providers, including the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine. Sometimes the issue is as simple as determining gender (which is not always as easy as you’d think with their strange anatomy). However, sometimes the issues are far more challenging, like caring for an unhealthy binturong confiscated from a marketplace in Southeast Asia. In these cases, we provide information on feeding and housing the animal, recommend the safest ways to transport the binturong to better care, and sometimes assist rangers or officials with finding an appropriate rehabilitator or long-term housing option in their own country.
Individuals can help by selecting food items made with sustainably farmed palm oil, a product that, when farmed unsustainably, can lead to deforestation of the binturongs’ habitat. Items made with sustainably farmed palm oil will be marked that way on the packaging.
And of course, it is always helpful to donate to or volunteer at a zoo, conservancy, or other facility that houses binturongs in a responsible way, especially if the facility helps educate the public about the importance of protecting Red Listed species.
Mindy Stinner is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Conservators Center. She has worked with binturongs since 1994 and is a coauthor of the Viverrids (Viverridae) Care Manual for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The Conservators Center’s mission is to reconnect people with wildlife by introducing visitors to rare, threatened, and endangered species—up close and personal.
Conservators Center website
If you are out and about this July 4th, stop by the Micro World iLab to find out just what chemicals cause the amazing display of color in fireworks. We have a quick iPad activity to give you all you’d like to know about this.
Also we have handouts in the lab you can take to your local fireworks display in case you’re one of those people who wants to yell out chemical names instead of “oooooh and ahhhh” while watching colorbursts in the sky! 🙂
Here’s the poster, available through a Creative Commons shared post at the “Compound Interest” website in case you want to print your own! 🙂 Have a happy July 4th weekend!!!!
Last night we debuted our “Biology of Marine Invertebrates” Class, aka, Dissections class! We had a nice group of 8 and spent two hours exploring the external and internal structures of a Quahog clam, Blue crab, and a squid. The time flew by and all seemed to enjoy themselves.
We will be doing the Marine Vertebrates Dissection class — using a perch, skate and dogfish shark — on Thursday night July 30th from 6-8. Go to the Museum website for Registration info.
Lastly, if you missed last night and you can’t join us next month, stay tuned. We will be doing both on Tuesday mornings in the fall!
OIL SPILL VS. BIOREMEDIATION
(Using plants, bacteria or fungi to clean up environmental messes)
WE ARE TESTING TO SEE IF BACTERIA OR FUNGI CAN CLEAN UP THE OIL WE SPILLED IN SOME SEA WATER, AS WELL AS THE OIL WE DUMPED IN SOME SOIL.
Come visit the Micro World Investigate Lab to check up on our oil spill and oil-contaminated soil experiments.
We are monitoring how well oil-eating bacteria, and oyster mushrooms can break down the oil and clean up the mess.
In the trays of soil are chive seeds and motor oil. To two of the trays we have added bacteria or fungus to see if either can clean up the soil enough for chives to grow.
These experiments are part of the demos we will be using this year in our “Pollution, Bioremediation, and Toxicology course. We’ll be holding this class either this Fall or next spring.
Participants can learn how to identify pollution and its source, monitor its severity, understand its effects on the human body, and learn of a success story of a dead river – the Naugatuck River in Connecticut, and how that river is being brought back to life.
It is a testament to what can happend when CONCERNED CITIZENS REFUSE TO GIVE UP , TAKE CHARGE OF THE EFFORT, AND MAKE THEIR LEGISLATORS LISTEN TO THEIR WISHES.
So watch the Museum website for postings this fall or spring, for when we’ll hold our class: “Pollution, Bioremediation & Toxicology”
And remember,watch our blog for updates over the next few months on our experiment!
Best of all, come see our experiment in person!!!
As promised, here are the answers to the Vinegar eel trivia quiz!
1) What is the scientific name for Vinegar eels? (alright, so this one’s a dead giveaway if you look at the “tags” but it’s like giving you points if you spell your name right. I’ll give you one question for free)
ANSWER: Turbatrix aceti
2) What do vinegar eels feed on? (no it’s not vinegar)
3) Can you see a vinegar eel without a microscope?
ANSWER: Yes you can, though it’s small, about 1mm. If you look closely at the slide, you can see movement
4) Pick the right answer: A vinegar eel culture will last for:
ANSWER: A vinegar eel culture is easy to maintain and can be kept alive for years. So the closest correct answer would be years
5) True or false: Vinegar eels have an incomplete digestive tract (i.e. they do not have both a mouth and an anus connected by a complete intestinal tract)
ANSWER: False. Vinegar eels DO have a complete digestive tract.
6) How many stages of development do vinegar eels go through?
ANSWER: 6 stages of development – egg, 4 larval stages, and an adult
7) Which is larger: a male or a female vinegar eel?
ANSWER: Female vinegar eel
8) Apart from length, how can you tell a male from a female vinegar eel?
ANSWER: The males have a curved end vs the females with a straight end.
9) How long does it take for a vinegar eel to go from an egg to an adult?
ANSWER: About 5 weeks.
10) How big is a vinegar eel?
- 1 nanometer
- 1 micro
- 1 millimeter
Who authored the 1961 research article on the physiology of vinegar eels that reports that they may lack the tricarboxylic acid cycle (Krebs Cycle) in its usual form? (yes this is for real! 😉 )
ANSWER: The paper, authored by H.A. Ells and C.P. Read was entitled:
Physiology of the Vinegar Eel, Turbatrix aceti (Nematoda), I. Observations on Respiratory Metabolism.