Professor Sarah Milton’s Research Explores the Effects of Environmental Stress on Florida’s Favorite Animal
Baby sea turtles walk on a miniature treadmill, one after another, inside an FAU lab. In this controlled environment, a student from Professor Sarah Milton’s lab measures the sea turtles’ oxygen consumption, as well as lactate and glucose levels, to determine the effect of long walks on the health of one of nature’s cutest and most vulnerable creatures.
After sea turtles hatch, they typically leave their nest and crawl across the beach, heading directly into the ocean. But light pollution can cause disorientation and lead them on a much longer journey. “You put on a flashlight, and they go straight to it, like a moth,” Milton says.
Milton and one of her graduate students, Karen Pankaew, created the treadmill project after Pankaew observed some sea turtles crawling as far as a mile out of their way while working with an organization that monitors sea turtles. She questioned whether all that walking would hurt their swimming endurance. “This is how science works,” Milton says. “You see something and then you begin to wonder.”
It turns out that the misguided journeys did not have a noticeable effect on the health of the sea turtles, at least in terms of their oxygen, lactate and glucose levels. However, the additional walking may make sea turtles more vulnerable to predators, a question being explored by fellow FAU researcher Professor Jeanette Wyneken.
Milton has been at FAU since 1992, and her research focuses mainly on sea turtles’ physiological responses to environmental stress. “We have these fabulous habitats because FAU is located smack between the Everglades and the ocean, and it is at the cutting edge of a lot of modern problems, whether it’s climate change and sea level rise or population increases.” In addition to Milton and Wyneken, FAU Research Professor Mike Salmon also studies sea turtles. “There are very few universities where you would find three people all studying different aspects of sea turtle biology,” Milton says.
Many of the research projects on sea turtles are “smaller scale,” the types of projects that would not receive funding from federal sources, Milton says. Much of her research is supported by the Friends of Gumbo Limbo, a nonprofit that supports the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, and the National Save the Sea Turtles Foundation, as well as state funding from the sale of sea turtle license plates. “There is a lot of good science you can do with a relatively small amount of money, and I’m grateful that these organizations are helping us with these important projects,” Milton says.
Milton’s lab is also exploring the role of climate change on the health of sea turtles. One of her students, Christopher Henaghan, is looking at the link between nest temperatures and hatchling performance and has found that the warmer the nest where the eggs are incubating, the less physically vigorous the hatchlings are. Another student is exploring whether increased nest temperatures result in lower egg survival.
“Whether it’s climate change or light pollution, we have a chance to see it now and make a difference,” Milton says. “Not only will we help protect our beloved sea turtles, but in aiding their survival we’ll help protect our own environment.”
— Abigail Klingbeil
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