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Saving Diamondback Terrapins – An Interview with Russell Burke, Part 1

We sat down with Russell Burke, Project Manager for Saving Diamondback Turtles, a project currently live on iAMscientist. Below is Part 1 of our interview.

iAS: Give us a little background on yourself?

Russel Burke: I have a traditional professor’s background—B.S., M.S., Ph.D. I have always been a field biologist and enjoyed working outside. I started playing the professional game—conducting publication-quality research—midway through my master’s degree program at University of Florida.

That whetted my appetite and I’ve loved doing that ever since, through my PhD and into my current position at Hofstra University. Over those years I’ve authored/co-authored 38 professional articles, a couple of book chapters and a book. Research often costs money; I’ve been P.I or co-P.I. on over a half million dollars of grants from a wide variety of sources.

iAS: How did you decide on this research?

RB: You could be asking why did I choose to study ecology, or why turtles, or why these turtles, or why these turtles with this project!

I study ecology because nothing I’ve found makes me happier. I like animals, I like to be outdoors, I like doing something to conserve threatened populations, and I get all that doing what I do now. Turtles are amazing and fun and challenging, and they especially need a lot of help. Diamondback terrapin are right here practically in my backyard, and they most definitely need help.

This particular project was such a natural step in the process that there was never a question I had to do it. My lab has been working on diamondback terrapins since 1999; we’ve focused mostly on what terrapins do on land (nesting) because that’s’ so easy and so important.

The famous sea turtle biologist Archie Carr said something like “99.9% of what we know about sea turtles is what they do 0.01% of the time”. We covered all the early bases early on and now we’re onto some fairly complex things. We quickly learned these turtles were in trouble, the number of nests laid per year is dropping fast, and they are heading for a population crash.

Some of the most important hypotheses we have about the causes of this decline involve knowing what’s happening in the water. We happen to live in a time when the technology needed to track animals like this is just about there, there are some companies that make things that just might do the job. But they are really expensive, and if I chose the wrong equipment, I’ve spent a lot of money for nothing. To choose among the technologies, I have to know more about terrapin diving behavior. This project will help me do that.

iAS: What do you hope to achieve with this research?

RB: Two or three years from now I hope to be sitting at my computer with a set of data files indicating the diving patterns of 10-15 adult female Jamaica Bay terrapins. Analysis of these data will tell me how many times per day each turtle is at the surface, and how long each surfacing event lasts. Those two pieces of information will tell me which tracking technology is most likely to work for these turtles. Also, there is a gigantic amount of other information to be pulled from these data, and I will be writing up a major paper for publication to share this information.

About Russell Burke:

Russell Burke is an Associate Professor at Hofstra University. His work centers around the interface between the applied field of conservation biology and the typically non-applied fields of ecology and evolution. A large part of his work is old style natural history, figuring out what animals and plants do in their natural environment. Then he uses these findings as a basis for suggesting management actions for conservation, or for testing ecological theory.

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