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National Geographic Kids Magazine: Secrets of the Spotted Eagle Ray

Nat geo kids magazine Kate on conservation

This past week I reached a career milestone — my first feature published in National Geographic Kids Magazine!

I’ve been working at Nat Geo Kids for the last eight months, and although I’ve written articles for the website, editorial for the magazine and launched the new school’s primary resources service, this has been my first opportunity to write a first-person feature. In this case, it was about Mote Research Laboratory‘s work to tag and monitor Spotted Eagle Rays.

Spotted eagle ray feature in nat geo kids magazine

At the start of the summer, I was fortunate enough to be sent to Florida, to research conservation stories on location for National Geographic Kids. One of the location’s I visited was Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast, which is home to Mote — an independent, not-for-profit marine research organisation dedicated to understanding the population dynamics of manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and coral reefs and on conservation and restoration efforts related to these species and ecosystems.

mote turtle patrol

My partner and I spent an entire day with the team at Mote — beginning with a 6am turtle patrol along the beach, looking for fresh crawl marks made overnight by female sea turtles coming on shore to lay their eggs.

Though at first we only found a couple of ‘false crawls’ (where flipper marks showed the female had returned to the water without digging a nest; perhaps because the area was not quite right, or perhaps because the timing wasn’t), we did eventually find a nest site containing eggs (verified by the Mote team gently digging round the area, recording, then covering the eggs back over with sand). It was an exciting start to the day, and one which hopefully will have a full feature of its own in the magazine!

Mote marine turtle hospital

Our second stop of the day (after some much needed breakfast on the go!) was a visit to Mote’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital. Having cared for all five species of Sea Turtle found in the Gulf of Mexico, including Florida’s most frequently seen species; loggerheadsleatherbacks and green turtles, it was a real treat to experience the expertise of Mote’s hospital team.

We were given a tour of the hospital, which has admitted around 600 sick and injured sea turtles in the last 20 years, and saw turtles recovering from surgery (above left), one receiving care for a pretty deep wound on its underside from a boat’s propellor (top image above) and one waiting for surgery to remove several clusters of tumours (above right). This poor female was having her tumours treated in a special facility for turtles suffering from fibropapilloma tumours, because scientists are still learning how this disease is transmitted among turtles.

spotted eagle ray research boat

The final part of our day consisted of joining Senior Biologist Kim Bassos-Hull on one of Mote’s research boats. Though I didn’t really know what I was looking for at first, there was plenty to see – from pelicans diving to catch fish, to dolphins bobbing out of the waves ahead. The research team logged every marine animal we passed, noting down what the animal was, and taking a reading from the GPS device to determine the exact coordinates that the animal was seen from.

First one, then two, spotted eagle ray’s came into view and the boat’s crew sprang into action. The spotted eagle ray is a type of fish with a flat body and wing-like fins for gliding through the water. Like their stingray cousins, eagle rays defend themselves using stinging spines with a barbed tip. This particular species can be identified by a bright white spot pattern on their back.

We had the opportunity to see one of the creatures join the important monitoring programme after being caught, tagged and released. Hopefully it will help with collecting data about migration and breeding patterns of the species — which remain a relative mystery.

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Now, I wouldn’t want to detail exactly what happened on the boat that afternoon; if you want to find out, you’re going to have to pick up a copy of National Geographic Kids Magazine this month! ;).

 

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Population monitoring and conservation

Carrying on my, what seems to have become a continuing theme, of comparing my volunteering experiences in Australia to those I partook in whilst in South Africa,  today’s blog (and I apologise  as again times seems to  have slipped away from me and it has been a while since I last blogged) is about counting and controlling population numbers.

Last month I took part in the ‘great cocky count’ in WA. Black cockatoos are currently considered an endangered species.  In an hour-long meeting held by Bird Life Australia a week prior to the count (15 April was count night), we were told all the important things about cockatoos (that they are semi-migratory, they mate for life, give long term parental care, etc.), shown nest boxes, and given a briefing on how to tell black cockatoos apart. There are two types of black cockatoo, ‘red tail’ ones and ‘white tail’ ones, which can be distinguished by colours around their eyes, colours on their tails and wings and crest shape. We were counting white ones.

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The actual process of counting was very simple: people were stationed across Western Australia between the hour of 5.25pm and 6.25pm (around dusk, when the cockatoos return to their roost sites for the night) people at each station count the number of cockatoos as they fly into the trees (deducting any that leave again). We were all given a simple table for tallying sighting and a map and compass to jot down direction of sighting. It is important that everyone counting does it at the same time, and only counts those landing in their area, not just flying by, as this will give the most accurate population numbers.

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Although during my time at the game reserves in South Africa there was no count to this scale, there was a need to monitor game numbers. During the two weeks I spent volunteering at Shamwari’s neighbouring Amakhala Reserve counting game was the task we spent most of our time doing. Amakhala is a relatively new reserve, so monitoring its numbers of game during breeding season are particularly important.

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I was there during September time, which is the lambing season for Thompson’s gazelle, water buck, and other antelope. Counts here consisted of riding around in the land rovers with a pair of binoculars and a tally sheet. People on each side of the vehicle (front, left side, right side) were responsible for their area.

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