WestConn students and faculty to study turtle migration in Mexico

DANBURY, CONN. — Students from Western Connecticut State University this summer will join instructors from WestConn, the Wooster School in Danbury and the University of Guadalajara at a field camp on Mexico’s Pacific coast to begin a long-term project to track the epic migratory journeys of the Ridley turtles native to the region.

WestConn Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Sciences Dr. Theodora Pinou, coordinator for the turtle migration research project at La Gloria field camp in the west central Mexican state of Jalisco, will accompany six WCSU undergraduate students majoring in secondary education during the two-week summer program from Aug. 1 to 15. Also participating in the program will be two teachers from Wooster School, a faculty member and two students from the University of Guadalajara, and two high school teachers from Mexico.

Pinou has traveled to La Gloria for the past five years to study several thousand Ridley turtles that nest on this remote beach site, working closely with La Gloria camp director Antonio Trejo and colleagues at the University of Guadalajara and the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University. Until now, the remoteness of the camp and the scarcity of available funding have limited the researchers’ capacity to study migration patterns for the native turtle species. This year’s pilot project will mark an important step forward as researchers for the first time attach satellite transmitters to the shells of nesting turtles at La Gloria and commence long-term tracking of these turtles’ migration.

This breakthrough has been achieved thanks to grants recently awarded by the Crane Foundation of Stamford, Conn., and the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation in Riverhead, N.Y., supplemented by funding from the Wooster School. A recent Crane Foundation grant of $3,360 will finance the purchase of one satellite transmitter, along with costs for a recent Science-at-Night lecture at WestConn. Wooster School will purchase two additional transmitters for the project. The Riverhead Foundation’s participation, announced by foundation Director Robert DiGiovanni, will cover the ongoing costs for satellite time to track transmissions generated automatically each time the monitored Ridleys surface for air during their Pacific journeys between nesting grounds and food sources. This continuous monitoring will enable researchers in Danbury and Guadalajara to establish the turtles’ geographical pattern of migration.

Pinou noted the project should settle the present disagreement among researchers as to whether the Ridley population native to the Jalisco region migrates along the Pacific coastline to feeding sites, feeds in the open ocean and then returns to nest, or undertakes a marathon trans-Pacific round-trip journey. “We won’t really know until we have put transmitters on these turtles,” she said.

Pinou is collaborating at WestConn with Assistant Professor of World Languages and Literature Dr. Alba Skar to create an interdisciplinary program of research that places emphasis not only on the scientific study of turtle navigation and migratory patterns, but also a project-based instructional model designed to facilitate scientific and language learning. This cross-disciplinary focus is reflected in the decision to select three students each from biology and Spanish concentrations in the secondary education curriculum.

“We will get a lot of good science from this project,” Pinou observed, “but the real beauty of this project is that, on top of that, we look to develop a model for the contextual learning of language. The idea is to explore how we can embrace diversity and the project complements this goal very well, as it will involve secondary education students who plan to become Spanish teachers. This research will give them an opportunity to integrate conservation, science and social diversity in the learning of Spanish.

“This program will help to give the students confidence to teach the sciences and to integrate their language skills into their instruction,” she added. “Our goal is to address the misconceptions about multicultural and gender differences in the sciences.”

Pinou noted the selection of La Gloria for the project reflects confidence in the field camp management’s commitment to provide a safe and secure on-site environment for the research team. In a region where poverty and hunger heighten the risk of poaching in turtle nesting grounds, “our students are in an environment where fundamental issues of conservation are right up front,” she observed.

With the cost of a single satellite transmitter to monitor turtle navigation currently estimated at about $3,400, Pinou is seeking additional funding from university and outside sources to expand the tracking program and provide a more comprehensive map of migration patterns. Donors to the project will have the opportunity to access tracking maps online — “and they will be able to name their turtle if they like,” she said.

For more information, call Pinou at (203) 837-8793 or contact her by e-mail at pinout@wcsu.edu.

Western Connecticut State University offers outstanding faculty in a range of quality academic programs. Our diverse university community provides students an enriching and supportive environment that takes advantage of the unique cultural offerings of Western Connecticut and New York. Our vision: To be an affordable public university with the characteristics of New England’s best small private universities.



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