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A Living Trilogy: Leatherback Turtles,
Jaguars and Manatees
STRI Panama

Hector Guzmán thinks we all have an amazing opportunity to contribute directly to conservation science. His work on corals at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute contributed to the establishment of Panama’s Coiba National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Pacific.

Now he has turned his attention to three charismatic endangered species in Western Panama’s San San Pond Sak wetland: the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle, the jaguar and the West Indian manatee. By monitoring the movements of these animals, Guzman and colleagues will reveal how all three species use this rich ecosystem. Research-based tourism projects contribute to local government’s efforts to protect wildlife. Scientific data will also improve co-management strategies for the protected area.

The San San Pond Sak wetland forms part of the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve spanning the border area between Panama and Costa Rica. Only a decade ago, on the beaches in the area nearly all eggs layed were harvested and a significant number of nesting leatherbacks were killed.

Long-term turtle monitoring

Guzman’s project to satellite tag leatherbacks and to monitor the temperatures in their nests will add to information about four species of sea turtles gathered over the last three decades by STRI research associates Anne Meylan (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Marine Research Institute) and Peter Meylan (Eckerd College), and their collaborator, Christina Ordońez Espinosa (Sea Turtle Conservancy).

Nearly every year since 1987, in studies supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society and approved by Panama’s Ministry of the Environment, MiAmbiente, the Meylans and their Panamanian field team have captured sea turtles in nets. They measure, attach flipper tags or PIT tags and release them.

Since 1990, they’ve also surveyed nests on beaches in the Zapatilla Cays to document their importance as nesting sites for hawksbill turtles. Based on this and other research they started the Hawksbill Turtle Research and Population Recovery project for Chiriqui Beach, Escudo de Veraguas, the Ńö Kribo region, the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca, and Bastimentos Island National Marine Park.

For both hawksbill and leatherback turtles, the Meylan team is developing genetic profiles to determine nesting beach of origin for individuals that return to the area to feed and to understand which individuals are nesting on each beach (hawksbills and leatherbacks). Each year they install a few, expensive radio transmitters to monitor the long-distance movements of the turtles.

Long-term research will shed light on changes in turtle populations due to both climate and coastal development.

Extinction is forever

Hector Guzman placed this satellite transmitter on a leatherback turtle. The photo was taken in red light so as not to confuse turtles as they come onshore to nest.
Reaching up to 8 feet in length and weighing up to a ton, leatherbacks are the largest turtle species and the fastest swimmers.

Hopefully, the great leatherbacks will not soon go the way of the giant, now extinct turtles discovered by STRI’s Carlos Jaramillo and colleagues in the Cerrejon coal mine in Colombia.

Paleontologists Strike Fossil Gold in Colombia

Leatherback turtle

Females return to the same beach where they were born to lay eggs several times during a nesting season. If the 80-some eggs in each nest haven’t been eaten by vultures or wild dogs, or collected by people, they hatch about two months later.

See where some of the leatherbacks tagged by the Meylan team in Panama have gone.

Turtle Tracker: Caribbean Leatherback Tracking Project: Naya

Satellite Tracking | Panama Jack

Turtle Tracker: Sea Turtle Tracking & Conservation: Millana

Manatees at San San Pond Sak


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