Ph.D. student’s research will help protect sea turtles, marine communities

By: Carolina Maria

It takes a lot of seagrass to support a healthy sea turtle population.

What a healthy sea turtle population looks like, how many seagrasses they need to stay healthy, where are they eating and how much they eat are key questions FIU researchers are trying to answer as they look for insights into whether sea turtle conservation efforts are working.

Liberty Boyd, a Ph.D. student in the FIU Institute of Environment’s Heithaus Lab is looking for answers at the Cape Eleuthera Institute in the Bahamas. Boyd is mapping the seagrass beds and measuring how quickly they regrow using drone footage and in-water surveys. She is also tagging sea turtles as part of a long-term mark and recapture project to understand how their populations have changed over time. Aerial drone surveys will tell her where sea turtles live and how many there are.

The mostly juvenile green sea turtles at Cape Eleuthera eat seagrasses and grow significantly as they reach sexual maturity. Similar to cattle, sea turtles trim back seagrass growth, which helps more seagrasses grow back in place of what was eaten.

Boyd’s research, made possible by support from the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation, will provide the clearest evidence yet of what’s happening beneath the waves. The foundation’s support is also helping FIU create a hub for sea turtle research.

“Studying the ecological impacts sea turtles have on marine habitats is what makes my work so interesting because with this knowledge we can better understand how to protect sea turtles and our marine communities,” Boyd said.

​​In part because of the research conducted by the Institute of Environment, FIU was ranked the No. 3 public university in the U.S. and No. 11 in the world for SDG 14, Life Below Water, which measures universities’ research on life below water and their education on and support for aquatic ecosystems.