The Palm Beach Zoo is now sponsoring a new program that is focused on the study of Florida’s endangered Hawksbill sea turtles that encourages and facilitates marine research and the conservation of Florida’s coral reef habitats. Sea turtles have become icons of marine conservation all around the world. Florida is a very important place for sea turtles, and has served as a worldwide ‘hub’ for sea turtle research for decades. However, of the five species of sea turtles that frequent Florida, hawksbills are the least studied, and as a result, the least understood. They are not known to nest with any regularity on Florida’s beaches (thus escaping the attention of most Florida researchers), but are frequently seen on the coral reefs that line our coast. As a recreational SCUBA diver, Larry Wood, conservation biologist at the zoo, was intrigued by the abundance and behavior of the hawksbill turtles he encountered off the shores of Palm Beach County. As a result, he initiated the state’s first and only study to focus on this species, which is very closely associated to Florida’s fragile coral reefs. Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) are a small to medium-sized species of marine turtle (100-200 lbs.) found in tropical and sub-tropical waters around the world. Hawksbills, as suggested by their name, are most commonly characterized by a markedly pointed, beak-like upper jaw that resembles that of an eagle or hawk. They are unique among marine turtles in that the scales of the shell overlap one another on each trailing edge, much like roof shingles, and, on smaller individuals, the scutes (shell scales) at the rear of the turtle are sharply pointed, giving a ‘jagged’ look to the rear of the shell. Of note are the beautiful shells of hawksbill turtles. Though they prey on a variety of marine organisms, hawksbills eat primarily sponges, and are therefore closely associated with coral reef habitats.
The hawksbill is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and is listed in Appendix 1of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It is also listed as endangered throughout its range under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. As such, specific actions are required to facilitate the recovery of the species. The most recent status review of the species in the United States recognized that numerous threats still exist for United States populations, recommended that the hawksbill remain listed as endangered throughout its range, and encouraged continued recovery efforts. www.floridahawksbills.com
Thanks to : Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures dive crew, Dr. Anne Meylan of the Florida Marine Research Institute, Dr. Peter Meylan of Eckert College (DNA), Kay Tennant and all dive assistants. Special thanks to the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary and the Taras Oceanographic Foundation for logistical support. Major funding for this project has also been generously provided by National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation, www.savetheseaturtles.org, the Bay and Paul Foundations, the Philanthropic Cooperative, and Ms. Charlot Taylor.
Special note: Hawksbill turtles are protected by State and Federal law. Do not pursue, touch, or harass these animals in the wild. If you encounter tagged hawksbills while diving, please record the tag number only if it can be read without disturbing the turtle.
The Palm Beach County Reef Research Team is a group of volunteer sport divers operating under the auspices of the Palm Beach Zoo. The Team was formed in 1991 to monitor the artificial reefs on a regular basis, using funding supplied from the State of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They are currently monitoring 25 artificial and 3 natural reefs out of 4 inlets in Palm Beach County.
The Team's mission is to observe, collect, document and record scientific data for use in further enhancing our marine habitats. They map, conduct fish counts, and monitor invertebrate status on many of Palm Beach County's man-made and natural reefs, under both funded and unfunded projects. State and local officials and the general public are informed of the results, and of the need for protecting all reefs. Some of the data collected is available in the Fish Reports and Dive Reports sections of their web site.
For more information on the Palm Beach County Reef Research Team, please visit their website.
Beach mice are small nocturnal rodents who spend daylight hours in burrows they create in sand dunes and are dependent on undisturbed beaches for their survival. Due to habitat loss and mortality due to feral animals, Perdido Key beach mice (PKBM) were declared an endangered species in 1983. The beach mouse population at Perdido Key, a small strip of land that straddles the Alabama-Florida border, was nearly wiped out in the mid-1990's when hurricanes Erin and Opal ravaged Perdido Key’s beaches. In September 2004, as Hurricane Ivan was approaching the Florida-Alabama coast, staff from the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) removed eight PKBM from the wild, including a pregnant female. These animals became the founders of the current captive population in the event that wild mice disappeared altogether. Numbering less than 40 after the storms, the population has increased, with current population estimates near 500. While individual populations appear to be growing, the Perdido Key beach mouse will probably never make it off the endangered species list because of continued habitat loss and degradation as well as predation by feral animals.
The Palm Beach Zoo became involved with these endangered mice in 2007 when a captive zoo breeding program was established in the hopes of one day being able to reintroduce PKBM to their natural habitat. This collaboration currently involves the Palm Beach Zoo, Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, and the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo in Gainesville, as well as the FWC, The US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida State Parks Service, and the Alabama Fish and Game. In October of 2009, the Palm Beach Zoo’s first offspring were confirmed. In the months that have followed, seven out of the zoo’s nine breeding pairs have successfully reproduced with over 80 offspring reaching maturity.
On March 27, 2010, staff from the zoo’s animal care and research departments traveled to Perdido Key with 16 of the offspring to take part in the first ever release of captive PKBM into the wild. Personnel from USFWS, FWC, Brevard Zoo, Santa Fe Teaching Zoo, independent researchers, and the Palm Beach Zoo worked together to individually mark each mice using small metal ear tags and placed radio collars on more than half of the mice being released. Once all mice were individually identified, they were transported to the release site, just over the Alabama border on Perdido Key. Mice from Brevard Zoo and Palm Beach Zoo were release in even ratios in three separate sites each containing four release pens.
The mice’s movements were tracked for two weeks after release using radio collars. Regular trapping of the mice continued to provide us with information on how the population wass both moving and growing. Three months after being released, a number of the females were found to be pregnant and over a dozen offspring were also identified. The mice were also found in areas of Perdido Key where the species has not been seen in over a decade, strong evidence that this new population is thriving.
Six months after the initial release, Palm Beach Zoo staff assisted with setting and checking close to 400 traps for two nights to assess current population numbers and distribution. The population has tripled and continues to grow as five of the trapped mice were pregnant females, including several second wild generation individuals. The mice have spread out evenly over their range and no ill effects have been seen thus far from the oil spill in the Gulf. The Palm Beach Zoo will continue their captive breeding efforts in conjunction with other Florida AZA institutions and will coordinate with the USFWS and FWC on future releases.
This is the first reintroduction program of captive PKBM to be implemented and Palm Beach Zoo staff members are proud to be able to take part in this important work.