Saturday, August 13, 2016

Dreams Do Come True: My First Arribada

One behavior that captures the imagination of the public and biologists alike is the mass-nesting behavior known as the arribada. It's maybe even more special because it's only known to occur on about 12 nesting beaches around the world (one of which is Playa Ostional in Costa Rica) and only the ridley sea turtles exhibit this mysterious nesting behavior
Olive Ridley arribada on August 1, 2016
  For years and years I've dreamed of my chance to see an arribada on the beaches of Costa Rica and I've imagined it a hundred ways. What I didn't know until recently was that I would be able to conduct my very own research project when I saw the arribada for the first time. After the "flota" was announced on July 31st, the team spent the day packing our equipment and racking our brains about the tiniest details of our plan and restlessly trying to nap as we anticipated a long night ahead. Finally, we were able to load everyone up with equipment and meet our extra volunteers to walk out to the section of the beach where we set up stations. When we arrived on the beach, myself and the other assistants that had never seen an arribada before were brimming with excitement and a little nervousness. I knew that this would be a night for the record books. We arrived early enough to beat most turtles to the beach to set up, and I couldn't help but notice the amazing clarity of the sky and how magnificent the Milky Way looked, it was as if seeing stars for the first time. After about a half hour of dancing on our toes waiting for our first female, she finally arrived. The complications of combining two separate yet intertwined PhD projects slowed our first night of work, but we worked diligently to find a flow that worked for us, and after two ultrasounds, morphometrics, egg weighing and counting, blood and tissue samples, measurements and more, we finally released her. At this point, I looked around and saw three more females emerging and thought to myself, "So it begins!" We approached another turtle and started the process over, and the beauty of the night and the turtles did not escape me, though we were quite busy. By the time we released the second female, the arribada was in full swing. Everywhere I looked around me was an olive ridley in various stages emergence, body pitting, nest digging, egg-laying or nest camouflage. You couldn't walk five steps in any direction without running into a turtle!  
Countless olive ridley tracks the morning after
  Because we work with red lights to minimize disturbance to the turtles, it can be hard to see very far around you. Luckily, offshore a few miles was a heat storm. I say "luckily" because every now and then would be a flash of lightening, and when you looked around where you stood you could clearly see that you were surrounded by hundreds of turtles in all directions. Walking among them for a few brief moments between samples, my breath was taken away. I've worked a few nesting beaches throughout my work with turtles, but I've never seen anything like this.
Brie with straggling turtles the morning after the arribada
  It's drilled into your head as a sea turtle biologist that turtles have a hardwired process to their nesting that is done roughly the same way every time, but as you look around at hundreds of turtles following their protocols, you actually get to witness how uniform each step of the behavior is. While some things are so similar, being able to see so many turtles in one location at one time also lets you appreciate the differences. I saw turtles missing limbs, parts of their carapaces, and yet still here in Ostional, making their contribution to the next generation. In that moment, looking into the faces of the turtles, seeing thousands of eggs being dropped into the sand all around me, every struggle that it's taken to get here, every disappointment, rejection, frustration along the way was worth it. When you see this many turtles in one place, following the protocols that have allowed them to survive 120 million years on this ever-changing planet, you can't help but feel hope. As a biologist, you spend so much time looking at numbers, trends, and sometimes it's sad news. Spending your days studying all the many threats that sea turtles face daily can suck the hope out of you from time to time, and the deeper you get into understanding how dire the situation is in some places, the more your excitement and hope can wane. But when the lightning flashed that night, and I could clearly see the hundreds of turtles surrounding me, I couldn't help but feel that original love brewing in my chest again, the love I felt caring for my first sea turtle in rehabilitation, the love I felt the first time seeing a nesting loggerhead in North Carolina, that love I felt as a child pressing my face against the aquarium glass, drooling over a sea turtle at the Omaha zoo in Nebraska. It was though the ice around my heart melted, and I again have hope for them. As our last female for the night returned to the ocean, I patted her back and thought, "Thanks, mama, I promise you that I will not give up, I will keep fighting for these babies you've left behind."  
A turtle returns to the ocean after nesting
  As I sat in the sand that night, collecting valuable data, I thought back to my early days of college, speaking to various adults about my dream of studying sea turtles. So many times I was told that it would never happen, that it was not realistic, that I would be better off finding something to study in my home state of Iowa or Nebraska, because EVERYBODY wants to do something like study sea turtles, and it would be too competitive for me to be successful. I'm glad I didn't listen to those people, as well-meaning as they may have been, because they were wrong. As I live and breathe, working here in Ostional, I want to scream from the rooftops, "Dreams DO come true, don't give up!" We worked all night until the sun came up, as immediately before dawn one of our radiotagged turtles was on the beach! Around 5:30 the sun emerged and there were still turtles on the beach, so you know we had to take that opportunity to take some photos. We were sandy, sweaty, sore and bug-eaten, bearing various battle scars from the night before, but we were all happy as we returned to headquarters that morning for a few hours' sleep. Shortly following, we had to prepare to do it all again, and we worked all night 4 nights in total, but I can safely say that I will never forget my first arribada. All I can hope for is that the work that we're doing here does more than add (many!) checks to my bucket list, but that it results in tools and data that will help us help sea turtles. Stay tuned with us as we continue our work, and pura vida!  
Ostional, Costa Rica
 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Howdy from Costa Rica

Howdy all,
In honor of the end of our first round of field sampling, I thought it was appropriate to give an update.

Olive ridley sea turtles mating near Ostional Beach, Guanacaste, Costa Rica. 


We had four boat days this week in which we captured sea turtle couples following mating. This project has been my first opportunity to work with sea turtles on a boat and I might be addicted! For someone who has primarily worked on nesting beaches, sea turtle rehabilitation hospitals and the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plan for my master's work, it is definitely an awesome experience to see the turtles in their element. We were very excited to see mating turtles in the water and have a chance to ultrasound the female to see if she had eggs and/or developing follicles while also getting an indication of overall health. What's exciting about this study from a physiology standpoint is that we hope to recapture five of our sampled females that we attached radiotransmitters to. This means that hopefully we can follow the reproductive cycle of a given female over the course of the season! If we're lucky we may even try to capture the females in the water as well as during nesting. We will keep you posted on how this effort goes!

Brie restraining an olive ridley female while glue surrounding the radiotransmitter dries. 

We are planning a trip to San Jose for later this week to do some paperwork and other less-exciting parts of fieldwork like dropping off samples we've collected to our collaborators that the Universidad de Costa Rica. We hope to do a couple of fun things while there since it's the first time in Costa Rica for myself as well as our two stupendous field assistants. They have worked so hard helping us with prepping equipment and cleaning up afterwards and we want to make sure that they also have fun while they're here.



As far as my personal experience here in Costa Rica goes, my efforts to improve my language skills have been, at times, frustrating but are definitely paying off. Little by little, a few words or a conversation at a time, I hope to see a difference!

This field season has been a dream come true, and there is still so much more to come as we transition into nesting beach sampling. We await the arribada which should come at the end of the month! Check back for updates!


P.S. All work conducted under federal permits and IACUC approval.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Preparing for Costa Rica!

Howdy all!
I'm writing to update you on what I've been up to the past couple months as I prepare for my first trip out to the field in Costa Rica! This past year I've been furiously applying for permits (in English AND Spanish), writing grant proposals and defending my ideas to my dissertation committee. My good friend and collaborator and I have also been designing data sheets, tracking down equipment, finalizing protocols and now we're down to labeling vials and packing!

I will be periodically posting updates here for you all to check out what I'm doing! We will (hopefully) be doing BOTH in-water sampling AND nesting sampling! If I get lucky - I'll get to see a mass nesting event called an arribada, in which hundreds or even THOUSANDS of sea turtles haul out on the nesting beach to lay their eggs in synchrony - and I'll have some awesome videos and pictures to share with you all!

Thanks for keeping up with me and I look forward to posting much more interesting blogs over the next few months!

If you would like to donate or share my story to support my efforts to conserve turtles, please check out www.gofundme.org/seaturtlebrie. Every dollar and share helps!


Brie Myre - CBCSD Alumni Spotlight!

Hey everybody,
I was recently honored to be featured as the Council Bluffs Community School District Alumni Spotlight! I am so fortunate to have received the opportunity to use AP coursework to help me prepare for college, in fact, I loved college so much, I never left! :-P


I've attached a photo of the featured story, but I hope that you'll go over to their website and check it out: http://cbalumni.org/stories/brianna-myre/. You'll also see mentioned at the end of the story that I'm working on fundraising to help me with the costs of living and doing research in Costa Rica! If you would like to learn more about the project and possibly contribute, please head over to: www.gofundme.com/seaturtlebrie.

Thanks for tuning in and check in with me as the summer progresses, I'll have much more exciting sea turtle action for you very soon!

Help Me with My Next Project!

Hi all! I've been so busy with teaching, coursework and setting up things for my project that I've neglected to post several blogs along the way, although it's been quiet here, trust and believe that it's not quiet in my daily life! Ha! I have a few big announcements:

1. My master's research is officially in-press to be published! I will post more information when I get the proof, that project was a labor of love - I had to garner money, permits, collect samples, analyze them in the lab, statistically analyze the numbers AND write the manuscript with the help of my beloved collaborators. I am so excited to see my first publication go out and can't wait to add more to the list - I am FAR from done!

2. I'm OFFICIALLY leaving Texas for the second half of the summer to conduct my first field experiment in COSTA RICA! It is so important that I get out there this year, and so I'm working with another experienced graduate student as well as a few undergraduate mentees who will benefit from working with experienced sea turtle biologists, including me!

3. I've launched a fundraising campaign to help me get my PhD project going, if you'd like to learn more about the project, I've posted my lengthy description below from the fundraising page. I'm also posting the video below, if you would like to donate, please visit www.gofundme.com/seaturtlebrie. I will be making an effort to personally thank each and every person who donates to me, I'm nearly to $1,000 in just two weeks!!!



I'm a PhD student in Biology at Texas A&M University-College Station. I have been offered the career opportunity of a lifetime to work with esteemed Marine Biologist, Chris Figgener (see her page at https://www.gofundme.com/wuhvd6zj), who has many accomplishments but her most famous one is the viral video of the extraction of a straw from the nose of an olive ridley sea turtle in Costa Rica last summer (watch it again! And please consider saying no to single use plastics like plastic bags and straws!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw). We have mutual interests in sea turtle reproduction with very different specialties that give our collaboration the potential to produce a large amount of critically important data.

We are especially interested in this coming season due to the El NiƱo event, and we need to test out some novel tools to find out if we can support and justify an even larger experiment next summer.

The beautiful thing about this particular study is that any donation will be supporting at least double the data production of a typical fieldwork-based sea turtle study because of the unique expertise that Chris and I along with our collaborators and mentors bring to the table.

Chris and I both have published or in-press papers in our respective sub-fields at previous universities in which we designed projects, obtained grant funding, and applied for endangered species research permits. We also went out in the field to collect our samples with our collaborators under state and federal permits, and analyzed samples in the lab. Finally, we conducted the statistical analyses and wrote the papers with the help and generosity of our esteemed mentors, and we can't wait to do it all again!

The results of our master's projects have driven us into the sea turtle reproduction arena, and we aim to collect physiological and nutritional data, stable isotopes, genetics, reproductive, thyroid and feeding behavior regulating hormones, behavior and movement data, ultrasound documentation of the gonads and more.

I hope that you will consider donating to this project because we plan to maximize every cent by sharing data and consolidating our resources. The data we collect in this project will garner many scientific publications and management implications that will directly improve the lives of nesting female sea turtles. I aim to develop tools that will be interesting in terms of evolutionary physiology as well as useful by providing conservation implications. We also hope that by working with olive ridley sea turtles, we will be able to learn more about the most critically endangered sea turtle in the world, the Kemp's ridley.

I also want to add that I would be deeply grateful for any donation that I receive, no matter the dollar amount. I have been pursuing my college education for 8 years, and my fieldwork this summer will allow me to accomplish many personal life goals and bucket list aspirations. One is that applying for permits and conducting fieldwork in Costa Rica has and will continue to require the improvement of my Spanish speaking and reading skills, which are skills I have been pursuing for years of my college education.

I faced difficult challenges in trying to make my dream of studying sea turtles happen when it came time for college – many well-wishing adults told me that everybody wants to study sea turtles and it just wasn’t something that was a realistic career choice. I thanked those people for their advice and pursued my dream anyway.

Luckily, several opportunities to intern around the country gave me the edge I needed to get into a graduate school that would allow me to study sea turtle physiology and endocrinology. I am so grateful to all my collaborators and mentors during my internships and during my graduate training because you invested in me and have led me to success in publishing research and traveling to national and international symposia to present the results of the previous project, and I am amped up to collect more data and do it again and much bigger in scope.

One more reason why this project means so much to me is that I have wanted to work in Costa Rica with mass-nesting sea turtles since my childhood. It all began when I was about 10 years old, I inherited two red-eared slider turtles from my uncle, and a turtle biologist was born. Thank you for reading, watching the video, and sharing my story. your support means the world to me! If you can donate, an extra hug to you! You will be helping turtles in a double-whammy of intertwined projects and supporting the dreams of several biologists who will help us along the way.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Long Live the Queen

In honor of Earth Day, I forced myself to sit down and write a poem that's been bouncing around in my head for years. It's written with a specific precious turtle in mind that I cared for after a serious boat strike injury. She has since recovered and been released, and I think of her often.

This poem is written as though I'm speaking to her after she first arrived to the hospital. I  am dedicating this poem to all the sea turtle biologists, conservationists and environmental activists out there taking steps to make this world a better place, thank you and Happy Earth Day.

Hello, Your Majesty,
I regret to inform you, you’ve suffered some injury,
As a result of a run in with a boat,
Luckily, my colleague found you afloat.
I must apologize for my species,
I assure you that we’re trying to change things.
                                                                                                       
It’s amazing that in all the challenges you face,
That you’ve been able to continue the race.
Predators, weather, humans and pollution,
Yet you’re unchanged after 120 million years of evolution.

No matter the challenge, the threat, you’ve thrived!
You carried on and continue to survive.
As a result of all the backbone you’ve shown,
You’ve finally risen to claim your throne.

It’s so wrong to see you in this tank,
A sea turtle out of water?
My heart sank.
Your wounds are deep,
Your pain, too great,
I am not worthy to influence your fate.

But duty calls, and I must respond.
Your caretaker, of whom, you’re not so fond.
I promise to soothe your pain and heal what ails,
Before I’m ready, you will set sail

Back to your kingdom
Where you reign
You’ll leave this hospital
And forget the pain
Freedom never tastes so sweet
As when you’ve lost it, temporarily.

Your brothers and sisters fill the halls
They were hit by boats or nearly drowned in trawls,
With hooks embedded or trash ingested,
Your forgiveness is not deserved, but requested.

For all the humans doing wrong,
Taking all they want for far too long,
There are humans fighting to resurrect,
Our future, and trying to prevent shipwreck.

These things I would tell you if I spoke your tongue,
I would tell you of all our heroes unsung.
And all that activists before me have done.
The battles we lost and the ones we won.

For now I will show you through what I do,
How deeply I desire to help you,
I will focus my actions, both large and small
To advancing your cause and helping you all.
My actions will show you, I say what I mean,
I'm your voice, your soldier, and everything in between.
I will fight for you until the day I die
And on my deathbed you’ll hear me sigh,

“Long live the queen.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Losing My Childhood Friend of 16 years, My turtle, Hercules

March 5, 2016 was one of the best days of my life, as I was honored to receive an Archie Carr Best Student Paper Award in Biology (runner-up). While I know that based on the laws of physics and chemistry that the universe strives to be in dynamic equilibrium, what happened March 6, 2016 nonetheless appears to be a cruel twist of fate. 


Sixteen years ago or so my parents let me bring home a red-eared slider turtle from the pet store, and I promptly named it Hercules (only to find out about 4 years later that SHE was a female). While we acknowledged that it was a big decision, I don’t think any of us realized what the consequences of such a decision would be – that turtle ended up inspiring a career in sea turtle conservation physiology research and a lifelong vow to help turtles every way I can until the day I die. 

Hercules, I had hoped we would have 16 more years of adventures together, but it appears that that was not in the cards for us. It was painful to be 3,000 miles away in Peru and receive this news, but we will have a proper burial when I get home. We have been through so much together, and coming home at the end of a long day to watch you swim, chase fish around your tank, go crazy over peeled grapes or take you outside to crawl in the grass were simple pleasures that has kept me going through some very difficult transitions in my life, and it has been for as long as I can remember. You were with me throughout my childhood, you went with me to Louisiana to start my master’s, you came along during my fieldwork in Florida, and you have seen me through the first 8 months of my PhD in Texas.
My only consolation is that I finally got to put you into the beautiful tank you’ve always deserved that I could never provide in the past, so that at least you could have a month or so swimming freely and living the high life. 



Thank you for changing my entire future and helping me discover a deep passion that gives meaning to my long days and purpose to my long nights. Thank you for helping me find hope and happiness. I don’t think you ever cared much for me, but thanks for never complaining in a frequency that I could hear, and I hope that in some way I was able to show you how much I love you. 

Every time someone asks me how a girl from Iowa decided to pursue a career in sea turtle biology, I talk about my childhood friend, and how it all began.

While some people might say you were “just” a turtle, to me the world is a sadder place without you in it. 

With a heavy, heavy heart, I renew my promise to find answers to difficult questions, develop new techniques and resources for biologists and conservationists, and fight to make this world a better place each and every day for turtles and other organisms like you. I also promise to do everything I can to inspire, encourage and mentor the next generation of biologists and conservationists so that I can one day rest in peace knowing that this important work continues. Because as much as I know that turtles need people like me, I also know that people like me need turtles on this planet so much more.

I promise to do all this, and to never forget all that you meant to me and what the life of a single turtle can represent in this world. 


Swim free at last, my dear friend and hero, thanks for everything. This one’s for you.