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Bristol Rigby Helps UF Ph.D. Student Study Sea Turtles on Big Bend Coastline

By Katrina Rossos

Bristol Rigby, a UF senior majoring in wildlife ecology and conservation, spent the summer assisting Sea Turtle Conservancy biologist, researcher, and UF Ph.D. student Rick Herren in collecting distribution and abundance data on threatened green sea turtles in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. Herren’s team conducted region-wide vessel surveys that also identified population hotspots of threatened loggerhead turtles, critically endangered Kemps ridley turtles and large coastal sharks.

Courtesy of Bristol Rigby

Originally a Missouri native, Rigby enlisted in the U.S. Navy and worked for the Department of Defense in the fields of oceanography and meteorology while she served four years at the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Steve Irwin helped prompt Rigby’s love of wildlife from a young age and it grew after encountering and filming Hawaii’s sea turtles. So, working with sea turtles during her internship was another great, real-world experience.

“I actually met Rick through the WEC Mentorship program,” Rigby explained. “He spoke this past spring semester during one of the Mentor Mixer events hosted by the WGSA and presented his research to undergraduates who were interested in networking with graduate students. Rick’s research will extend into next year, and I’ll gladly work with him for as long as he needs assistance.”

The purpose of Herren’s research is to help wildlife managers better comprehend the distribution, abundance, and demographics of sea turtles along the Big Bend coastline. Information on sea turtle abundance, habitat requirements, movement, diet, and distribution along this coast is largely unknown in this region, despite it being one of the largest seagrass estuaries in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

“Our responsibilities included surveying observations of sea turtle species along transects, recording species data from the observations, and maintaining the boat and line-handling,” Rigby said. “As we wrap up our transect surveys and move into describing sea turtle hotspots, we will begin analyzing benthic conditions, and catching and attaching GPS transmitters to individual green sea turtles.”

To date, Herren’s sea turtle team has surveyed over 850 kilometers of in-water habitat between Apalachee Bay and Hernando Beach. They have pinpointed many hotspot locations of sea turtle activity. The team identifies the species from the research vessel tower and records the location, size class, distance from ship, and the animal’s behavior.

Courtesy of Bristol Rigby

“Once population hotspots have been identified, green sea turtles are captured, sampled, measured, and tagged before release,” she clarified. “The research team is also collecting habitat measurements to determine what makes hotspots so attractive to turtles and utilizing satellite tracking to study seasonal movements.”

In addition to surveying the sea turtles, Rigby documented the field work with her underwater camera and these materials will be used by the Sea Turtle Conservancy and UF for education and outreach, according to Rigby.

“The most memorable experience so far has been the opportunity to be out in the Gulf and catch green sea turtles, they’re extremely fast swimmers and it’s quite a rush capturing them,” she said. “One of the best experiences though that I wasn’t expecting was how close our crew has become. At least two other people that I met while working on this project are now good friends and we’re all in several classes together.”

Rigby’s main passion is herpetology, and she is currently considering pursuing herp research in graduate school. Yet, she is also just as interested in anti-poaching efforts and said she would enjoy working for a federal organization such as USGS or NOAA or anti-poaching organization in the U.S. or Africa.