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Dr Owen O’Shea visits the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

The ongoing collaboration between the Cape Eleuthera Institute and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWWCC) was recently further endorsed with a visit by Research Associate Dr Owen O’Shea to the FWWCC headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. Much of Dr O’Shea’s work on stingray genetics is in collaboration with Dr Liz Wallace, postdoctoral research fellow at the commission and so this trip served as an analytical opportunity for Owen to conduct lab work with Dr Wallace in order to process DNA samples collected over the past 12 months. IMG_4408

This research project is in the final stages of completion, after Owen collected 70 samples from the rare, elusive and recently re-described Caribbean whiptail stingray Styracura schmardae across multiple spatial scales in the central Bahamas. This work is the first of its kind in this species, and will attempt to discern dispersal potential and gene flow across restricted temporal periods, for example, in assessing sibling and parentage relationships, rather than an historical radiation.

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This work is important, because in fragmented habitats, such as The Bahamas, barriers to gene flow and dispersal are realized, particularly among island chains, separated by deep ocean basins. This provides challenges for live bearing fish species, further exacerbated by conservative life histories; so understanding these dynamics and potential migratory corridors will enable us to further discern the importance of these coastal environments.

Prey discrimination in yellow rays: project update

In the last month, Research Technician Maggie Winchester began behavioral trials of yellow rays (Urobatis jamaicensis) as part of her independent project, under the supervision of Dr. Barbara Wueringer of James Cook University, Australia, and Dr. Owen O'Shea of the Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI). This project aims to address the capacity of the electric sense utilized by all elasmobranchs, as it pertains to their foraging strategy. Specifically, Maggie and the team using experimental manipulations to assess to what extent prey type can be ‘discriminated’ by isolating electric sensory mechanisms alone.

Yellow ray close up

The yellow ray is one of the most ubiquitous and commonly encountered elasmobranchs throughout the Caribbean region and is a regular visitor to the shelf and patch reefs adjacent to CEI. It is a small-bodied benthic ray that lives in seemingly mixed sex aggregations and is very easy to catch in shallow water with two dip nets by snorkeler. So far, the team has successfully captured and transported 19 rays to the wet lab at CEI, where they have all undergone behavioral trials, and been successfully returned to their capture sites after 24-hours observation.

A yellow ray in one of our wet lab holding tanks awaiting trails

During the experimental trials, individual rays are presented with two concealed prey types that are known to be part of their diet based on a study by CEI currently in review for publication. These two prey choices are concealed in agar, masking visual, chemical and gustation cues and allowing for detection solely through electro-sensory means.

This work will allow a clearer and more concise evaluation on the specific role the ampullae-lorenzini have in discriminating a specific type of prey, and raises questions on whether these rays actively choose one prey type over another.

School Without Walls

Over the past two weeks the CEI Sea Turtle Research and Conservation team has had the opportunity to join forces with the grade 7 and 8 classes of Deep Creek Middle School (DCMS). The grade 8 students have been studying the Lucayans in both their Art and Social Studies classes. In Social Studies the students were learning about the turtle-catching techniques of the Lucayans. The Lucayan method involved tying string to remoras and once the remora has found and attached itself to a turtle the Lucayans would catch it and bring it onto land. In their art class they took inspiration from the turtles to create a Lucayan style art piece. The grade 8 students met up with the turtle team in Deep Creek and learned how to capture, handle and measure juvenile green sea turtles. 14876625_10154631817244042_5085153883057111276_o

The class broke up into several groups and went out on a small boat to search for turtles within the creek. Once a turtle was spotted one person would keep their eyes on the turtle and point at it while everyone else got their snorkel gear on and ready to go. After the turtle came up to breath a few times swimmers were sent in to chase after the turtle and grab it when it came up to breath.

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The following week, the grade 7 class was given a presentation about sea turtles and then came out to Starved Creek to take their turn at chasing turtles as part of the School Without Walls program at DCMS. One of the goals of the School Without Walls program is to get students outside and learn about their environment. The students had the opportunity to hold, measure and chase juvenile green sea turtles as well as learn about the importance and significance of seagrass. The students were very excited to name the turtles tossing out names like Marshmallow, Steve and Diamond!

This partnership between DCMS and the turtle team was a huge success! The students got the opportunity to learn about sea turtles and CEI was able to expand its outreach efforts!

CEI shark team pulls in rare catch!

On Wednesday, August 31, 2016, the CEI Shark Research and Conservation Team caught and sampled a huge 258 cm male lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris). This thrilling capture was made while conducting a longline survey off of Cape Eleuthera, Bahamas to establish a dataset about the abundance and size of different coastal shark species in south Eleuthera.  Although a wide variety of sharks can be found around the Bahamas, and there are many known lemon shark nurseries, mature lemon sharks are not commonly seen near south Eleuthera. The information collected from this rare catch can be used to trace the lineage of lemon shark populations found throughout the Bahamas, which can ultimately help influence future shark conservation and management initiatives.

Research Tech Maggie Winchester holds a 258cm long lemon shark in tonic immobility.  This allows the team to take measurements and samples, as well as tag the animal in a manner that is safe for both the shark and the researchers

Lemon sharks are a large species of coastal shark that can reach up to 3.5 m in length. They can be identified by their pale brown or olive coloring, and their two equally sized dorsal fins.  Lemon sharks are listed as Near Threatened and their position at the top of the food chain makes them a valuable species for the local ecosystems. However, there is a limited amount of data on these adult sharks in this area which makes this catch all the more exciting. The Bimini Biological Field Station fills this knowledge gap by reconstructing adult male genetic information using the samples from the more abundant juveniles. Now we can include the data collected from this individual to create a more complete understanding of the local lemon shark population.

The team holds the lemon shark in tonic immobility so Dr. Heather Marshall can take a blood sample

During the workup procedure, the lemon shark was measured to obtain information about its size, age, and sex, which can then be added to the data collected by CEI to show the dynamics of the local populations of sharks. The size of the shark was recorded by taking three specific measurements of its body. The team also collected a tissue sample, which will be used to build up a long term genetic record of the shark populations around Eleuthera. After all measurements and samples were collected, the lemon shark was tagged using a dart tag and a dorsal tag. These tags are used for identification purposes, allowing the research team to recognize a recapture. Following the workup procedure, the lemon shark was released in great condition and everybody was left in awe as it swam away.

The team is preparing to release the lemon shark by removing the hook so the researchers can effectively release the shark quickly and safely

The team watches the lemon shark swim away after a successful capture and release

CEI team visits with Space 2 Create summer camp

Last week, four members of staff from Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI) visited Harbour Island as part of an outreach event working with the summer camp Space 2 Create. 2016_08_09HI511sm

Space 2 Create is a comprehensive summer enrichment program that hosts 83 students for 3 weeks. Through artistic, academic and community projects, youth are empowered as leaders. During morning session students focus on one of the following tracks;

  • Space 2 Learn – math, English, science
  • Space 2 Taste – culinary
  • Space 2 Explore – marine science
  • Space 2 Tell your story – film making

The CEI team spent two days teaching and interacting with the camp participants exploring different aspects of research and science.

The first day Anna, Research Technician at CEI, gave a presentation about sea turtles in The Bahamas. The group learned about the four species of sea turtle in The Bahamas, and the threats they face. They also learned about their conservation status and the research being conducted currently at CEI. Following the presentation, the excited young students were able to go out in the field and participate in the capture of a green sea turtle contributing to the data they learned about earlier in the morning. They watched enthusiastically as measurements were taken and data was collected, and at the end of the workup were able to name and help safely release the animal. Green sea turtles are the most abundant of all 4 species found on Eleuthera, and are the main focus on the research conducted at CEI. Therefore the measurements taken from the turtle will allow researchers to gain important information such as growth rates and a health estimation of the individual, and contribute to a better understanding of the population of juveniles green sea turtles around Eleuthera.

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The team was invited to stay for the remainder of the day to learn more about Space 2 Create and join in some of their afternoon activities. The afternoon was spent singing, dancing, painting, and joining in the drama class.

The following morning, the focus switched to the status of sharks in The Bahamas. Shane Gross, photojournalist specializing in underwater conservation photography, gave an insightful talk on sharks using many of his own photos and experiences. After this, Maggie Winchester, Research Technician at CEI, gave a presentation on the shark research currently going on at the institute, followed by a Cuban dogfish dissection.

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Sharks play a significant role in the marine ecosystems of The Bahamas, not only improving ecosystem health but aiding the tourism industry as well. Despite their importance, many species of shark remain vastly understudied. The Cuban dogfish is an abundant yet poorly understood species of deep water shark in The Bahamas, commonly found at around 600m depth. During the dissection, the campers learned about the internal and external adaptations that make this small species of shark able to survive and thrive deep in the water column. This provided a hands on opportunity to learn about shark biology, using a species commonly found around the Cape.

Between Shane and Maggie’s talks and the interaction with the Cuban dogfish, myths about sharks in the Bahamas were addressed and resolved, and many fears were removed.

In the future CEI will work in collaboration with Space 2 Create and Bahamas Plastic Movement to support research activities for Eleutheran Eco Schools Club ‘s.

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Photo credit: Shane Gross